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Posts Tagged ‘William Witney’

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Larry Teng Directs Hawaii Five-0

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

The reboot of Hawaii Five-O, which just aired its 100th episode, is superb action television.

I don’t watch that much TV, so I came late to this show, but even if my favorite directors are people like Manoel de Oliveira and Eric Rohmer, one simply has to admire the skill of people like Larry Teng, a young director who works in episodic television on such shows as Medium, Elementary, NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-O, and has done a great deal to bring diversity to the director’s chair on television. Teng’s brilliance as an action director is simply stunning – fight scenes, car chases, shootouts – this is work much like that done by the gifted William Witney for Republic in the 1940s, and he’s obviously primed to make the jump to features.

Watching the show, and having been on as many sets as I have, it’s stunning that the cast and crew knock out each of these episodes in eight days flat – but as Teng told Cheryl Hollar,

“in Hawaii Five-O (on such episodes as ‘Ua Hopu,’ ‘Mai Ka Wa Kahiko,’ ‘Ka Hakaka Maika’i,’ ‘Ma Ke Kahakai’), there’s a visual grandeur built into the show. There’s a little more mission. It’s a different kind of storytelling specific to the need. You have to have the full cooperation of the island when you’re shooting. It’s one of the bigger budget shows out there. And it really shoots itself. It’s a beautiful location. That’s one reason we are able to do the big scope movie stuff that we do.

Anytime you work on a show as ambitious as Hawaii Five-O, you still try to do the show in eight days. You have to understand where you want to spend your time on a show like that. You have to have enough daylight to shoot a lot of different scenes. You’re always chasing the sun. And, there’s also the potential for breakdown of equipment that’s not always readily accessible to you as it would be in a production center like L.A.

Hawaii Five-O’s ‘Ua Hopu’ (2012) felt like a mini movie to do. It was an all-day shoot in the jungle. We had two and a half hours to do it. Alex O’Loughlin [one of the leads in the series] and Mark Dacascos [playing the villainous Wo Fat] only had about an hour that Sunday to really choreograph, which is like no time at all.

Normally, you have like a full day. So, coming on set, we narrowed about four hours work down to two and a half. Alex and Mark only had one hour rehearsal time. That is normally a full day as well. It was also the last scene of the day. So, the closer it got to quitting time, we started to lose a little bit of light.

Also, with something like that, you don’t want to harm your actors. So, you want to make sure it’s safe. You break down the fight scene into movements, like four separate sections.” In short, it’s hard work, which most people forget when they’re just sitting watching the tube.

Watch an episode, to see what cutting edge action direction is like today; really impressive.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Captain Marvel was the first comic book superhero to hit the screen.

A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.

As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.

The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.

Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”

The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.

If you’re interested in the history of comic book films, this is indispensable viewing.

Why Not Reboot The Crimson Ghost?

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from The Crimson Ghost (1946)

From the sublime to the ridiculous, but then again, it’s nearly Halloween, and suddenly it struck me; why doesn’t someone do a reboot of The Crimson Ghost, easily one of the most memorable criminal masterminds of the 1940s American cinema. Just take a look – the guy is a natural!

Sadly, as with many Republic films, The Crimson Ghost never made it to DVD; almost nobody knows about the character except for historians. The only reason most people know about The Crimson Ghost today is because the rock and roll band The Misfits adopted the Ghost’s grim visage as their signature logo.

The original production was a 1946 serial that ran for twelve chapters, clocking in at an epic 167 minutes, completed at a total negative cost of just $161,174, which was still $23,262 over budget. Even today, adjusted for inflation, that’s only $1,940,986.60. Budget it now at say, $10,000,000. Keep the CGI down, make it simply and cheaply, use a lot of great stuntmen for the fight sequences, and you’ve got a winner. It has to be better than the recent reboot of The Green Lantern, if tackled intelligently — which is always the problem. The original played it completely straight — a reboot, just like Batman Begins, would only succeed if it did the same.

The Crimson Ghost was produced by Republic Pictures, easily the best of the classic Hollywood action studios; the director, William Witney — assisted on the dialogue scenes by Fred C. Brannon — was a master of his craft, and one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite auteurs. The Crimson Ghost offered nonstop fight scenes, explosions, car crashes, and centered on the Crimson Ghost’s inevitable plan for world domination, which he very nearly pulled off.

Hey, why doesn’t Tarantino do the reboot? He loves Witney’s work, and believe me, The Crimson Ghost is a prime candidate for a remake. Republic Pictures probably still holds the rights, and even today, people still remember the original with real affection. No, it isn’t Bresson or Ozu — both of whom I love, as any reader of this blog knows — it’s action filmmaking, but why not give it a try?

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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