King Vidor, Golden Age Hollywood’s Oddball Idealist

It’s a bizarre alternative for a summer time retrospective—who was King Vidor, anyway? You’ll be able to’t argue that he wasn’t one of many nice name-brand impresarios of the Golden Age—producing in addition to directing lots of his personal movies in an period when these jobs have been generally hierarchical, and generally even doing each independently, if it was an unlikely challenge he alone believed in. It was a closely billed profession that ran some 45 years, from WWI-era silents by to his final widescreen blockbuster, Solomon and Sheba (1959). Filmgoers truly knew his title; his massive box-office splashes ranged from the mid-silent-heyday hit The Massive Parade (1925) to the postwar hullabaloo Duel within the Solar (1946).

However, who was he? It could be that within the legacy of Auteur Principle parsing and lionizing, there has by no means been a satisfying analysis, professional or con, of Vidor, simply because it’s troublesome to say precisely what a “King Vidor film” is. (And “King” was no Hollywood nickname; it was his given title, an homage to an uncle with that royal-sounding moniker.) In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris walks round Vidor’s elusiveness by declaring him a grasp of “great moments” quite than of nice movies, and claims that “the classics of his humanistic museum period—The Big Parade, The Crowd, Hallelujah—are no less uneven or more impressive than the classics of his delirious modern period—Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Ruby Gentry.” Raymond Durgnat, in his book-length research on Vidor first printed in Movie Remark, asserts that Vidor “contained multitudes”—as contradictory and multifarious as America itself. Definitely, his motion pictures steadily engaged with the political arguments of their day and age, usually in surprisingly excessive methods, however you’d be arduous put to nail him down as both left or proper. A progressive individualist or a reactionary individualist? A liberal collectivist or a conservative collectivist? Proto-socialist or demi-fascist? 

At all times some type of social idealist, Vidor favored to step ahead and put his chin out, and so lots of his movies are unstable flying objects on collision programs with Twenty first-century sensibilities, usually in ways in which contradict one another. The selective Lincoln Heart retro begins with The Massive Parade, the big-budget, Irving Thalberg–produced WWI epic that propelled Vidor to the highest rank; it was his Twenty first characteristic. It was the world’s first actual warfare movie, absolutely narrativized and non-documentary, and on the time what grew to become the style’s saggiest Hollywood cliches felt like contemporary smacks on susceptible cheeks: the naive American lad (John Gilbert) enlisting in a match of patriotic whimsy, the rollicking camaraderie of Military life, the wooing of a French peasant lady (Renée Adorée), the scalding trauma of battle leavened by pure-hearted heroism and sacrifice. Right this moment, the naive type of the movie meshes completely—that’s, uneasily—with its militarism, with Sarris-approved Vidorian moments of grace rising like crocuses: the enemies bonding within the blast-crater scene stolen by Erich Maria Remarque for All Quiet on the Western Entrance; the climactic reunion second between Gilbert’s (spoiler) now one-legged vet and his mom (Claire McDowell), who flashes again to his toddlerhood and his first stumbling steps.


Vidor by no means decides, in his seek for on a regular basis heroism, which opposing pressure to champion—defiant private freedom or the grand bond of the social material.


Vidor’s slick model of La Bohème (1926), one among his many why-not-try-it assignments, is dominated by Lillian Gish’s tragic conviction because the consumptive Mimi, and pales earlier than The Crowd (1928), Vidor’s first unique screenplay in virtually a decade, and maybe the primary movie of his that was designed from the bottom as much as be a Grand Assertion, his first hand-delivered disquisition on human struggling and dignity. One of many few nice American silents, The Crowd innovated by taking an iconographic strategy to an Common Joe (John Murray), as he struggles to retain his singularity within the Metropolis-like torrents of New York Metropolis life (and within the Kafkaesque hive of workplace work) and faces heartbreaking loss and disappointment. Influenced by F.W. Murnau’s cartwheeling digicam concepts, from The Final Chortle (1924) to Dawn (1927), Vidor broke the financial institution on late-silent neo-expressionism, manipulating views and touring pictures and usually crafting the city whorl of 1928 in keeping with a depressive paranoid’s daydreams. However even this movie, with its deliberately easy characters and thrust, is one thing of a Rorschach take a look at: Vidor by no means decides, in his seek for on a regular basis heroism, which opposing pressure to champion—defiant private freedom or the grand bond of the social material.

This bind would catch Vidor once more, however not earlier than doing time with Marion Davies’s finest silent comedies, notably Present Folks (1928), a Hollywood self-mockery through which Davies, loving comedy however hampered by William Randolph Hearst’s insistence on melodrama, performs a “serious” wannabe who’s roped into Keystone Kops–type slapstick. The germ from this spawned the essential story of A Star Is Born (she’s on her approach up, buddy-comic William Haines is on his approach out), and the movie is legendary for a raft of cameos (Chaplin, Gilbert, Murray, and so on.), although the deftest is Davies’s cameoing as herself—and getting sneered at by the movie’s heroine. Comedy isn’t the very earnest Vidor’s dwelling turf, although, and in reality, Davies’s crushing parodies of diva contemporaries Gloria Swanson and Mae Murray, which reportedly scored massive at San Simeon events, are spot-on, if truly a little bit imply.

For his first talkie, Vidor went rogue, strong-arming MGM into financing the primary all-Black musical. Vidor shot Hallelujah (1929) on location in Tennessee and Arkansas with no recognized film stars and a minuscule finances, ending up narratively with a vice-obsessed, Oscar Micheaux–esque saga of a sharecropper’s rise, fall, rise, and fall, placing gospel on a movie soundtrack for the primary time and paying royal consideration to the economic work processes of cotton bailing and lumberjacking. (It was written, like 5 different Vidor movies, by Wanda Tuchock, one among solely 4 girls to get a Hollywood director credit score between 1930 and 1950.) The performances could be as stiff because the early recording expertise, however Nina Mae McKinney, as a jivey hooker/con artist, is famously improbable, and Vidor’s eye for real-deal Americana is indelible.

Avenue Scene (1931) feels extra like an abnormal early talkie, tailored from a Pulitzer-winning play, and set, foreshadowing Do the Proper Factor, on a New York Metropolis block on a scorching summer time day that climaxes in violence. However whereas Elmer Rice’s script has a number of stereotypes (immigrant, ethnic, and in any other case), it additionally has a knack for ambivalence and shifting factors of view, a humane texture Vidor digs into, with a busy sniping forged largely lifted from the stage (together with the debuts of Beulah Bondi and John Qualen). Clearly turned on by city bustle and congestion, Vidor units his digicam roaming, constructing to a crane shot over a gathering crowd that’s virtually majestic.

He hit paydirt with The Champ (1931), a mushy redo of Chaplin’s The Child that sadly made a star and Oscar winner out {of professional} asshole Wallace Beery. Extra attention-grabbing as we speak is how Vidor’s wanderlust obtained him to have interaction with the early-’30s Polynesia melodrama fad, with Fowl of Paradise (1932), shot in Hawaii. Joel McCrea, aboard a fully-manned yacht of indulgent white males, falls in with island princess Dolores del Rio, a lot to the chagrin of the native tradition and, it’s made clear, the isle’s volcano god. Vidor’s visible vitality is obvious all over the place, from the magnificent monitoring shot via the bushes and behind the operating natives, looking into the broad bay on the approaching boat, to the very pre-Code sequence through which the sullen McCrea, retaining night time watch, is taunted and seduced within the black water by a nude-swimming del Rio. It’s old style, idealizing and simplifying the beautiful, sweet-natured islanders simply as Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, did a yr earlier, and nowhere close to as excoriating concerning the affect of white Westerners as W.S. Van Dyke’s Tahiti-set White Shadows within the South Seas (1928). Vidor was going for the complete matinee thrill, packing in dense visuals and immaculate process-shot set items (together with a convincing whirlpool and lava move), in addition to deft supporting-character performances, particularly from the “natives.” Del Rio, draped solely with a strategic set of leis for many of the movie, goes a great distance in justifying the movie’s touristy glow and sense of indulgence with each bare-backed hoochie-koo and relaxed romp by the jungle.

It’s whenever you get to Our Every day Bread (1934) that you simply start to marvel concerning the Vidor that kowtowed to Ayn Rand and made The Fountainhead 15 years later. Our Every day Bread is virtually a New Deal PSA, an anti-capitalist, near-Marxist power-to-the-people story that Vidor needed to finance himself. The plenty are the hero, no query this time. The plot is totally taken up with how a penniless city couple (Tom Keene and Karen Morley, bearing the identical names because the couple from The Crowd) inherit a nugatory farm from an uncle and construct an agrarian commune, recruiting different roamers and financial refugees to calm down, contribute, and muster a DIY paradise within the scrubland, sans profit-making and exploitation. Nonetheless, the politics could be dicey, notably as soon as the brand new communards vote not for democracy or socialism however for a “strong leader.” All the identical, the hopeful sense of decided group might make you weep as we speak, and the final sixth of the film, through which everybody frantically digs an irrigation canal to save lots of the crops, is among the most dramatic portrayals of labor in movie historical past.


Vidor’s concepts concerning the roots and fallout of American can-do-ism are solely sensible, not ethical and even political—which locations him within the mainstream of mid-century studio filmmaking, earlier than the blessings of doubt, guilt, and paranoia that movie noir delivered after the warfare.


Vidor’s class warfare would proceed in subtler types: pitting bluebloods towards the trampy low-class fierceness of Barbara Stanwyck, in Stella Dallas (1937), an enormous hit and one other sacrifice-for-your-kids weeper; turning Robert Donat’s idealistic younger physician right into a wealthy-client money-grubber, thereby skewering the commercialization of medical care, in The Citadel (1938). The espionage farce Comrade X (1940) stands out as a mutant on this filmography, an anti-Soviet dishing that dares to posit Clark Gable as a snarky undercover Yank arguing ideology with KGB brokers and blackmailed into marrying a Moscow streetcar conductor (Hedy Lamarr, making an attempt for a Ninotchka), to be able to whisk her in a foreign country. Actually, Vidor didn’t have a lot of a humorous bone, and neither did Lamarr—although now that we learn about her autodidactic engineering prowess (co-inventor of a wartime frequency-hopping communications system nonetheless underpinning wi-fi networks as we speak), every little thing she does is attention-grabbing. That leaves Gable, swigging from bottles and bouncing Ben Hecht quips, to maintain the outrageous story in movement.

That very same yr, Vidor launched into the heartland once more, along with his patriotic American coronary heart bursting, taking up the historic epic Northwest Passage (1940)—a famously misnamed movie that covers solely one-half of Kenneth Roberts’s bestseller and by no means will get to the titular passage. It’s a French and Indian Struggle saga, which suggests for Vidor a deep dive into on-location men-in-the-wilderness bootstrap-ism, and for us a galling tub in slaughtering Native People. Certainly, the central village bloodbath is almost on a par with the village razing in Apocalypse Now, besides Vidor & Co. didn’t imply it as a horrifying critique. Macho militarism is the brand new number of one-for-all collective right here—the mountain males of Spencer Tracy’s militia outfit forming a human chain to cross rapids echoes different Vidor group heroics—and it’s an ideological toggle that undoubtedly went down smoother in 1940 than it does as we speak.

When he goes massive, Vidor’s concepts concerning the roots and fallout of American can-do-ism are solely sensible, not ethical and even political—which locations him within the mainstream of mid-century studio filmmaking, earlier than the blessings of doubt, guilt, and paranoia that movie noir delivered after the warfare. A extra temperate entry, H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), revisits, through John Marquand’s novel, Stella Dallas’s fight with the social elite, this time following middle-aged Boston Brahmin businessman Robert Younger as he flips by the passages of his unsatisfying life, which is primarily unsatisfying as a result of his real love, a sassy, good New York immigrant advert author, performed by Lamarr, refused to give up her profession and disappear into his rich household’s fold. You’d be unhappy, too, as Lamarr was by no means extra lovable than right here, and the story’s decades-long stretch builds to a rueful lodge room reunion that’s quietly, patiently painful. Misplaced time is simply that, and the Hollywood pleased ending that follows doesn’t ice the bruise.

Vidor was again at his aspirational ardour with An American Romance (1944), through which Brian Donlevy performs a Czech immigrant whose dogged optimism and resourcefulness make him right into a metal magnate. Nonsensically reduce by MGM of a half-hour (from a 152-minute size), the movie oozes Vidor’s roseate imaginative and prescient of America as a paradise for the person’s accomplishment, although the fervent prettification of mass industrial manufacturing feels virtually Soviet. Ultimately, regardless of Vidor’s deal with on his actors’ heat, his case was dimly made—it’s a movie that begins from a super, not a narrative—and it remained the best self-professed disappointment of his profession.

Duel within the Solar is one other matter—an outrageously overblown mega-Western that was pumped filled with radioactive depth not by Vidor however by producer David O. Selznick, who clearly wished one other Gone With the Wind. With not a sprig of idealism in sight, and with no nice love for both the striving particular person or the group, it could be Vidor’s most entertaining movie, as fluorescently coloured as a Caribbean mural and so luridly arch that it nearly calls for future camp-loving generations of followers. The bizarre off-ness of the movie merely begins with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, two pure under-players, prodded into consuming one another’s costumes as a pair of mutually psychotic cattle-empire lovers; you possibly can virtually hear Vidor pulling his hair out over Selznick’s maniacal calls for. (Like Hearst with Davies, Selznick was constructing a fort within the sky for Jones.) Because it was, Vidor walked earlier than capturing was by, and it could be that your favourite vein-popping slab of the movie was directed as an alternative by subs Josef von Sternberg, William Cameron Menzies, or William Dieterle.

However that’s not the crucible upon which Vidor’s pantheon standing hinges—it’s The Fountainhead (1949), arguably probably the most troublesome movie of its decade. It’s definitely not only a respectful filmization of a preferred message-tome that also speaks to readers who see themselves as victims of society’s mediocre majority—it’s itself an act of ubermensch modernism. Vidor relays the story a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright–type architect (Gary Cooper) battling the world for the best to his personal integrity, and raps out, in thick paragraphs of dialogue, Rand’s “objectivist” doctrine, and not using a hint of detectable irony. Vidor additionally managed to make the one true Futurist movie in American cinema, with a particular cement-and-bleached-beam veneer and a maniacally didactic narrative type. (Cooper doesn’t really feel snug talking Randian, however Raymond Massey, because the writer of a muckraking paper, positive does.) In reality, the movie appears to have been made in an alternate universe, the place structure is the nation’s most crucial public concern, architects are thought actually heretical in the event that they experiment, and hordes of residents riot if a newspaper helps (on its entrance web page) an untraditional constructing.  

As with all utopia-building, and with most something Rand stamped her sensibility on, this movie is sweeping, self-righteous nonsense; the ultimate picture of Cooper’s Howard Roark standing atop the world’s tallest construction, arms on hips, is a poster for a revolution that by no means occurred.  There’s a loopy, harmless magnificence to it that may solely be attributed to Vidor, as confounded as he in all probability was by a postwar America freshly embracing industrial consolation and conformism, and not fueled by proletariat wrestle.

As a smaller-budget palate-cleanser, and as a type of riposte to the inflicted grandiosity of Duel within the Solar, Vidor subsequent made a grittier Jennifer Jones Western, Ruby Gentry (1952), with a narrative that but once more facilities on a white-trash heroine’s wrestle towards the moneyed courses. The movie is definitely nearer to Southern Gothic, set in North Carolina and positioning Jones because the option-less spitfire surrounded by leering males, with just one—Charlton Heston, in one among his key bastard moments—price her salt. The plot tries to border Jones’s Ruby as a femme fatale, however by now we clearly see what’s happening, particularly as soon as the lady from the swamps good points financial energy and begins exacting revenge on the entire city.

The retrospective’s closing bow is Vidor’s penultimate movie, the Dino De Laurentiis–produced model of Tolstoy’s Struggle and Peace (1956), a wierd alternative Hollywood had been roughly avoiding its total life, shot in Vidor’s forty third yr of moviemaking. Largely miscast apart from Audrey Hepburn’s Natasha, and concurrently as top-heavy as so many massive worldwide productions of the day and cruelly condensed, the movie feels negligible as we speak, notably when in comparison with the 1966–67 Soviet model that’s not too long ago been restored and launched on video. When you’d like to offer it a Vidorian studying, it could signify the ageing filmmaker’s full lack of religion in each the group (right here, the Russian imperial aristocracy) and the person (Henry Fonda’s Pierre, misplaced within the wastelands of the Napoleonic invasion). 

Vidor had already grown fed up with one producer and studio head after one other, and shortly sufficient, with Hollywood itself. We’ll by no means know what he would possibly’ve made from the ’60s. In his retirement, he puttered with tasks on metaphysics, Andrew Wyeth, Christian Science, and the unsolved 1922 homicide of actor/director William Desmond Taylor. He died at 88, two years into the Reagan administration, in a really totally different America.  ❖

Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His newest e book is the brand new version of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. 

King Vidor
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