William Witney

Active - 1937 - 1982  |   Born - May 15, 1910   |   Died - Mar 17, 2002   |   Genres - Western, Adventure, Action

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Biography by Bruce Eder

One of the kings of B-movies, William Witney is rapidly achieving recognition at the end of the 20th century as an unheralded master of the action film. Born in Lawton, OK, Witney came to movies as a messenger boy, and gradually worked his way up the ladder at Republic Pictures. In 1936, he was on the site of the location shooting for The Painted Stallion, which had run into serious shooting delays, when he was ordered to take over directing the serial; Witney finished it on time and on budget, and for the next six years was one of the studio's three most reliable makers of chapterplays, along with Spencer Bennet and John English, with whom he frequently worked.

Witney's serials were all characterized by breathtaking action sequences, seamlessly mated to well-played scenes depicting character development, which accounts for the fact that they continue to play well for modern audiences. His major contribution to action films derived from his innovative way of shooting fight scenes. After watching the way that choreographer Busby Berkeley broke his dances into segments, Witney did the same with his fight scenes, breaking them into shots lasting less than two minutes before changing his set-ups and giving his stunt men a rest; in that way, they could work full-out in every shot and put that much more into their work. Witney augmented this effect by undercranking the camera slightly -- that is, running the film slightly slowed down -- so that when projected at normal speed the action seemed even more furious, and his resulting fight scenes are amazing to watch. In 1946, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, Witney returned to Republic but declined to pursue serial work. Instead, he was assigned to take over the shooting of Roy Rogers' movies, which had fallen into a rut and were in danger of losing popularity. Witney put the action back into them and brought Rogers and the studio continued success into the mid-'50s.

Witney's most popular feature films are The Master of the World, starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, and The Bonnie Parker Story, starring Dorothy Provine, and the latter is considered something of a B-movie classic, and his exploitation movies Juvenile Jungle and The Cool and the Crazy also have cult followings. But his most enduring work, for those familiar with the genre, can be found in the Republic serials Nyoka and the Tigermen, Jungle Girl, and Spy Smasher. All of them display boundless energy and a lean, eloquent focus on character that never slows down the narrative. Although Witney himself would be the first to deny any artistic intentions, he is a master stylist within the action genre.

Movie Highlights

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