Jean Yarbrough

Active - 1937 - 1969  |   Born - Aug 22, 1900   |   Died - Aug 2, 1975   |   Genres - Comedy, Crime, Musical

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Born in Marianna, AR, and educated at the University of the South, Jean Yarbrough started out in movies in 1922 as a prop man working for producer Hal Roach. He moved up to assistant director in the mid-'20s, mostly handling second-unit material, on such silent comedies as Dizzy Daddies (co-written by Stan Laurel, featuring James Finlayson) and Galloping Ghosts (co-written by Laurel, featuring Oliver Hardy and Finlayson). He continued as an assistant director into the talkie era, with comedies such as Alaska Love starring Andy Clyde, before he moved up to the director's chair in 1936 with Dog Blight, a Jack Norton comedy short co-starring Barbara Pepper. Yarbrough was an efficient filmmaker who could move his actors around quickly and effectively, skills that he honed on fast-moving shorts such as A Buckaroo Broadcast starring comedic character man Dick Elliott and cowboy singer/songwriter/actor Ray Whitley. He made the jump to B-features in 1938 with Rebellious Daughters, a comedy-thriller co-starring Marjorie Reynolds. He specialized in low-budget films, but managed to make his mark in this field with movies such as the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat (1940), which has become highly regarded for its camp value as well as some decent chills. He managed to mix these same elements even more effectively in King of the Zombies (1941), an unusual comedy-thriller in which the black comic-relief character, a valet played by Mantan Moreland, is the only character who knows what is going on and keeps a step ahead of the villain. During the early '40s, Yarbrough moved to Universal as a director (and sometime producer/director) and was responsible for making a string of enjoyable B-comedy-musicals, including South of Dixie, So's Your Uncle, and Good Morning, Judge, which were immensely popular and profitable during the war years. In 1944, Yarbrough moved to the top rung of Universal's comedy ladder when he was assigned to the Abbott & Costello vehicles In Society (1944), Here Come the Co-Eds, and The Naughty Nineties (both 1945) which, among them, offered classic film accounts of the renowned comedy sketches "Floogle Street" (renamed "Bagle Street" here), "Jonah and the Whale," and "Who's on First." During this same period, he proved himself no less adept at straight horror fare with his work on House of Horrors, The Brute Man (both starring Rondo Hatton as a demented backbreaker), and The Creeper. During the late '40s, Yarbrough began moving between the major studios such as 20th Century Fox, where he did breezy B-titles like The Challenge, a minor Bulldog Drummond thriller, and B-studios such as Monogram, where he did one of the most unusual of the Bowery Boys movies, Angels in Disguise, which added the veneer of film noir and the mood of a serious detective thriller to the comic antics normally associated with those films. He continued doing comedies into the early '50s, directing such lesser fare as Abbott & Costello Go to Mars and then he was pegged to work as the director of The Abbott & Costello Show (one episode of which included an in-joke reference to Yarbrough's early-'40s feature film South of Dixie). During the late '50s he occasionally veered into other genres, such as serious historical drama with The Women of Pitcairn Island, and he moved into frequent television work as well, including series such as Bonanza. Yarbrough's last feature film was Hillbillies in a Haunted House (1967) and, apart from a couple of shared directorial efforts, he made his final bow as a director two years later with The Over-the-Hill Gang, a made-for-TV movie starring veteran actors Walter Brennan, Pat O'Brien, Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, and Andy Devine. He passed away in 1975, leaving behind a lively and engaging body of work that usually had a special appeal among younger viewers.

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