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Jean Yarbrough - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2006

Films directed by Jean Yarbrough on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Even among B-movie directors, Jean Yarbrough was never one of the bigger names, he was never quite as prolific as let's say Sam Newfield, nor did his work excell its modest origins like the films of Edgar G.Ulmer. Also he never was on the verge of becoming an A-movie director, and quite frankly, he quite possibly did not have the talent to be one. Plus, he did not have much of a personal style, which did allow him to switch between genres (and later move over to television) with the greatest of ease, even though most of his films were comedies and musicals, with the horror genre he is now most famous for trailing far behind.

However, to merely dismiss Jean Yarbrough as a studio hack would be wrong, with Devil Bat and King of the Zombies, he has at least made 2 shockers that many vintage horror fans (me included) wouldn't want to have missed for the world (if not necessarily for their directorial excellence). And there's more to discover ...

 

Jean Yarbrough was born in Marianna, Arizona in 1900, and after studying at the University of the South, he joined the film industry in 1922. Being a prop man at first, he soon rose up the ranks to assistant director at the Hal Roach Studios, working on some early shorts starring Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson and the like, many of them being scripted by Stan Laurel.

Roughly with the arrival of sound, Yarbrough moved to Roach's main competition Mack Sennett, but soon enough, he found himself doing second unit work for a variety of studios (even some majors), and even on feature films, like a bunch of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies for RKO in the mid 1930's.

 

From that point of view it almost seems inevitable that he eventually got into directing himself, beginning with the comical short Don't be Like That for RKO. Between 1936 and 1940, Yarbrough would direct (and also often write) a total of 29 shorts, mostly comedies or musical featurettes, and his most prominent shorts might be a series of films starring then poular comic Leon Errol (A Rented Riot, Dummy Owner, Berth Quake, Crime Rave).

However, even while still busy doing the RKO-shorts, Yarbrough had higher aspirations, and in 1938, he directed his first feature film, Rebellious Daughters, for small-time producer Progressive Pictures. Now to be quite honest, Rebellious Daughters, a film starring Marjorie Reynolds, Verna Hillie and Sheila Bromley, is anyhting but a classic, it's a cheesy morality play about a good girl throwing in with the wrong kind of people because of her unsympathetic parents - yet in today's age of exploitation (re-)discoveries being announced every other week, the film would deserve more attention than it presently gets.

 


From Rebellious Daughters though it was back to shorts at RKO, and it took three more years for Yarbrough to become a full-fledged feature director.

In 1941, Jean Yarbrough started his feature director-career with three films for poverty row studio PRC [PRC history - click here ], the notorious Devil Bat, the comedy Caught in the Act, and the espionage drama South of Panama (co-scripted by Sidney Sheldon).

Of the trio, Devil Bat is without a doubt the most famous, most interesting and also the best film, an atmospheric flick in which a mad scientist invents a shaving lotion that causes his giant bat to attack whoever wears it and which he uses to avenge himself on those who (he thinks) wronged him. Now the plot might sound about as silly as horror cinema can get, but somehow the film rises over its silly story and its cheap production values and actually works as a good, old-fashioned spooker - not at least due to the fact that the mad scientist was portrayed by Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] turning in one of his most chilling performances (in no other movie did he - or anyone else for that matter - say a simple "good bye" quite as menacingly).

 

After the three films for PRC, Jean Yarbrough moved over to Monogram, which was actually a bit of a step up for Yarbrough - if only a tiny one - for Monogram was the more respected of the two production houses - but was still strictly poverty row.

Arguably, Yarbrough's first film for Monogram was also his best or at least most fondly remembered one: King of the Zombies. King of the Zombies is one of these silly B-shockers with outrageous plotlines that were produced in the 1940's by the dozen. This time around the film is about a Nazi-scientist on a dessert island hell-bent on creating a zombie army. But a duo of feds and their bumbling assistant get wind of this and in the end spoil the mad doctor's evil plans ... What distinguishes the film though from its comptetition is black comedian Mantan Moreland [Mantan Moreland bio - click here], giving one of his most memorable performances. Though only credited as a supporting actor, Moreland dominates every scene he's in and makes the film his own. And he's quite hilarious, too.

 





 

Obviously, Monogram must have been happy with Yarbrough's handling of the black comedian, as they over the next two years gave him 4 more assingments to direct Mantan Moreland:

First, in 1941, came two films of the Frankie and Mantan series, The Gang's All Here and Let's Go Collegiate, comedies that teamed Moreland up with young (white) Frankie Darro [click here for a Frankie Darro-biography], and in 1942, Yarbrough directed Moreland in Freckles Comes Home - a comedy about a country kid outsmarting the big city mob - and Law of the Jungle - one of these typical jungle films shot entirely on studio sets featuring your typical man-in-a-gorilla-suit.

(By the way, even after Yarbrough changed from Monogram to Universal in 1943, he worked with Moreland 4 more times, in the musicals Hi'ya Sailor [1943], Moon over Las Vegas and South of Dixie [both 1944], and the Abbott & Costello-comedy Naughty Nineties [1945], though Moreland had only small roles in those.)

 

By and large, Yarbrough's output for Monogram consisted mostly of comedies of one sort or another (with a few crime dramas being thrown in), his films from that era also included Father Steps Out/City Limits - comedy about a railroad tycoon falling off his private train car and finding himself teamed up with hobos Frank Faylen and Charles Hall - and Top Sergeant Mulligan - comedy duo Frank Faylen and Charles Hall in the army - from 1941, Meet the Mob/So's Your Aunt Emma - spinster Zasu Pitts taking on the mob -, She's in the Army - title says all -, Lure of the Island - another studio-bound jungle film with Robert Lowery and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams fighting Nazis -, the propaganda effort Criminal Investigator/Crime Reporter and the crime comedies Man from Headquarters and Police Bullets from 1942, and Silent Witness/Attorney of the Defense - starring Ace the Wonder Dog - from 1943.

 

In 1943, Yarbrough moved up from poverty row to the (minor) majors when Universal offered him a contract. Sure, Yarbrough was still confined to doing B-pictures, but it was a step up nevertheless (from a career-point-of-view, not necessarily concerning the quality of Yarbrough's films).

 

Initially he was assigned to do comedies (Good Morning Judge [1943]), musicals (Follow the Band [1943], Weekend Pass [1944], On Stage Everybody [1945], the Desi Arnaz-starrer Cuban Pete/Down Cuba Way [1946] ...), and musical Westerns (Twilight on the Prairie/Prairie Buckaroos [1944] and Under Western Skies [1945]). Eventually, Yarbrough's career at Universal found its peak when he was assigned to direct a trio of Abbott & Costello-movies, In Society (1944), Here Come the Co-Eds (1945, this one also stars horror fave Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here]) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). Now admittedly, Abbott & Costello were not the greatest comedy duo around and on a pure quality level they could never match the comedy of, let's say, Laurel & Hardy, but still were able to amuse in their better films and were making solid money for Universal, so the job of directing these pictures wasn't handed over to just anybody.

Besides that, in Naughty Nineties, the duo would commit their "Who's on first ?" ("and Watt's on second ?")- routine to film, which would eventually become the most famous and most enduring Abbott & Costello-routine ever.

 


After the Abbott & Costellos, Yarbrough's career took a rather unexpected turn though: Instead of continuing in comedies and musicals, Yarbrough found himself assigned to horror films, as Universal (and producer Ben Pivar) desperately tried to revive their once great horror cycle - which had become pretty pathetic in the mid-1940's - by creating, if at all possible, a new series to become a money spinner. So Pivar went through the Universal catalogue of characters, and soon enough he came up with The Creeper, a character first seen in the Sherlock Holmes film Pearl of Death (1944, Roy William Neill).

The Creeper was actually a character based entirely on the acromegaly - a rare disease causing uncontrollable growth in head, hands and feet - of its actor Rondo Hatton, who, due to his predicament, was forever doomed to play human monsters, as he did in Pearl of Death.

 


Eventually what was supposed to become The Creeper-series was handed over to Jean Yarbrough, and he directed Rondo Hatton in House of Horrors/Joan Medford is Missing (1946) - an artist saves the Creeper from drowning, only to use him as a tool to wreak revenge on his critics - and The Brute Man (1946) - a football star gets facially disfigured and decides to take revenge on those who wronged him. The Creeper-series however came to an untimely end when Rondo Hatton in early 1946 died from causes related to his acromegaly - which came as such a shock to Universal that they - allegedly out of piety - decided to not distribute The Brute Man. However, at the same time Universal was not all that eager to lose money on the film either, so they sold the distribution rights to poverty row studio PRC [PRC history - click here ], who were more than happy to distribute the flick - so much for Universal's piety.

 


Apart from the Creeper-series, Yarbrough did one more horror film for Universal, She-Wolf of London (1946), a horror thriller/murder mystery about a woman made to believe she's a werewolf.

By and large though, these late entries into the Universal horror cycle were anything but great, rather they were badly scripted and uninterestingly directed attempts to rehash former glory - not very successfully though.

 

After this handful of horror flicks and a crime drama, Inside Job (1946, based on a story by Tod Browning and Garrett Fort) - a film about two ex-convicts trying to go straight but being bribed into doing another job -, Yarbrough left Universal, which gave up B-movie production altogether - for a while -, and did not make a single movie in 1947.

In 1948 though, Yarbrough came back with a trio of films, each for a different production house: Shed no Tears, a noir for Eagle-Lion, The Creeper for 20th Century Fox and Triple Threat, a football drama for Columbia.

Of these films, The Creeper is probably the most interesting, as it was once again produced by Ben Pivar, formerly of Universal-fame, who - as the title might suggest - still hasn't given up his idea for a Creeper-series, though essentially this film is something else: It concerns a mad scientist who turns a man into a catlike killer who commits the notorious claw murders. At the same time, a woman who has just returned from Africa, believes she has contracted something in the dark continent that turns her into the Claw Killer. Though in this point highly derivative of She-Wolf of London (and in fact oh so many other horror/mad scientist-movies), The Creeper isn't half bad, an atmospheric little shocker that is sure to please fans of vintage horror ...

 

In 1949, Jean Yarbrough found himself back at Monogram and back to directing mainly comedies and musicals like Holiday in Havana (1949) - another musical starring Desi Arnaz -, Leave it to Henry, Henry the Rainmaker (both 1949) and Father Makes Good (1951) - a trio of comedies about a henpecked husband who's also an inventor -, Joe Palooka meets Humphrey and Joe Palooka in Humphrey Takes a Chance (1950) - two boxing comedies starring Leon Errol -, Master Minds (1949) - a Bowery Boys comedy with some horror elements starring Alan Napier and Glenn Strange in Jack Pierce make-up -, Angels in Disguise (1949) and Triple Trouble (1950) - two more Bowery Boys-comedies -, or According to Mrs Hoyle (1951) - a remake of Meet the Mob/So's Your Aunt Emma -, with only the occasional adventure movie (The Mutineers [1949]), drama (Big Timber [1950]) or crime film (Sideshow [1950]) thrown in.

 

1952 saw a departure from Monogram and a return to doing Abbott & Costello-comedies, Lost in Alaska and Jack and the Beanstalk, but these films, like most of the duo's 1950's efforts, only proved that their not too special humour has grown somewhat tired over the years and is more fitted for television - they had their own TV-show, The Abbott and Costello Show, from 1952 to 1953 - than for the big screen. Interestingly enough, Jean Yarbrough had his hands in directing and producing their TV-show as well ...

 

Eventually, Yarbrough returned to Monogram, or more accurately its sister company Allied Artists - a company initially founded by Monogram to make more high-profile movies but soon found itself making just the same B-fare as Monogram, but still eventually proved successful enough to outlive its mother company. Here Yarbrough found himself doing some more B's like a pair of Bowery Boys-comedies (Crashing Las Vegas and Hot Shots [both 1956]), a truck driving melodrama (Night Freight [1954]) and a Western (Yaqui Drums [1956]).

Besides that, he also made another film for 20th Century Fox, The Women of Pitcairn Island (1956), an adventure film about the aftermath of the historical Mutiny of the Bounty - however, the concept for this film, might sound much more interesting than the finished product, which is little more than cheaply made South Seas-escapism.

 

None of Jean Yarbrough's films from the 1950's however were destined to bring him any kind of lasting fame, and sometimes one had the impression that Yarbrough did in fact not really care ... which might even be true, because in the 1950's, Yarbrough had found a new home for himself:

Television.

 

Starting with Beulah - a sitcom about a black housekeeper (Hattie McDaniel) who has more common sense than the entire white family she works for - in 1950, Yarbrough would find himself working on a wide variety of shows from virtually every genre: comedy - above mentioned The Abbott and Costello Show, Petticoat Junction, the classic Addams Family, My Favourite Martian -, Western - Death Valley Days, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Gunsmoke, Bonanza -, adventure - Border Patrol, the Buster Crabbe starrer Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion [Buster Crabbe bio - click here] -, crime drama - the George Raft starrer I'm the Law -, war - Navy Log -, and whatever else there is inbetween.

As a B-movie director trained in various genres, he was of course the perfect choice for a TV-director: He knew how to work on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget, he knew how to quickly and effectively set up a shot and squeeze the most out of every set-up, and he wouldn't let artistic aspirations get in the way of getting the job done on time.

 


By the 1960's, Jean Yarbrough had dedicated himself to television almost entirely, his forays into feature filmmaking had grown incredibly rare indeed ...

In 1967, Jean Yarbrough released his last theatrical feature, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, produced by the Woolner Brothers. The film however - a sequel to the film Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966, Arthur C.Pierce), itself a rip-off of the popular TV-show The Beverly Hillbillies - was a sad swansong to his career (in fact it would have been to any career), inasmuch as it is a jokeless mix of pseudo-backwoods comedy, country music and horror clichés, made all the sadder by the fact that John Carradine [John Carradine-bio - click here], Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] and Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] all were in this one but could do little to save it.

 


Jean Yarbrough's last made-for-TV-movie might be worth mentioning though - if only not to let his career end with Hillbillys in a Haunted House -, the 1969 effort The Over-the-Hill Gang, a likeable comedy-Western about a quartet of ageing cowboys teaming up one last time to clean up a lawless town. Pat O'Brien, Walter Brennan, Chill Wills and Edgar Buchanan star as the oldtimers, with support by Gipsy Rose Lee and Ricky Nelson. Eventually the film got a sequel in 1970, The Over-the-Hill-Gang Rides Again, directed by George McCowan, with Fred Astaire in a lead role.

 

The Over-the-Hill Gang would be the very last feature-length film Jean Yarbrough ever directed, after that he only did a few more episodes of TV-shows and then went into retirement.

Jean Yarbrough passed away in 1975. The body of work he left behind was not that of a great director, it was that of a craftsman working dependably within the system, be it B-movies or TV-series. Many of his films are now by and large forgotten, and most of them deservedly so, however some of his films are fondly remembered by genre afficionados (and vintage film afficionados by and large) to this day ... and these films deserve every bit of limelight they are getting ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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