FILM

King Vidor, Golden Age Hollywood’s Oddball Idealist

A Lincoln Center retrospective delves into the work of a director who tried to save America from itself.

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It’s a weird choice for a summer retrospective—who was King Vidor, anyway? You can’t argue that he wasn’t one of the great name-brand impresarios of the Golden Age—producing as well as directing many of his own films in an era when those jobs were commonly hierarchical, and sometimes even doing both independently, if it was an unlikely project he alone believed in. It was a heavily billed career that ran some 45 years, from WWI-era silents through to his last widescreen blockbuster, Solomon and Sheba (1959). Filmgoers actually knew his name; his big box-office splashes ranged from the mid-silent-heyday hit The Big Parade (1925) to the postwar hullabaloo Duel in the Sun (1946).

But, who was he? It might be that in the legacy of Auteur Theory parsing and lionizing, there has never been a satisfying evaluation, pro or con, of Vidor, just as it’s difficult to say exactly what a “King Vidor film” is. (And “King” was no Hollywood nickname; it was his given name, an homage to an uncle with that royal-sounding moniker.) In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris walks around Vidor’s elusiveness by declaring him a master of “great moments” rather than of great films, 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 study on Vidor first published in Film Comment, asserts that Vidor “contained multitudes”—as contradictory and multifarious as America itself. Certainly, his movies frequently engaged with the political arguments of their day and age, often in surprisingly extreme ways, but you’d be hard put to nail him down as either left or right. A progressive individualist or a reactionary individualist? A liberal collectivist or a conservative collectivist? Proto-socialist or demi-fascist? 

Always some kind of social idealist, Vidor liked to step forward and put his chin out, and so many of his films are unstable flying objects on collision courses with 21st-century sensibilities, often in ways that contradict each other. The selective Lincoln Center retro begins with The Big Parade, the big-budget, Irving Thalberg–produced WWI epic that propelled Vidor to the top rank; it was his 21st feature. It was the world’s first real war film, fully narrativized and non-documentary, and at the time what became the genre’s saggiest Hollywood cliches felt like fresh smacks on vulnerable cheeks: the naive American lad (John Gilbert) enlisting in a fit of patriotic whimsy, the rollicking camaraderie of Army life, the wooing of a French peasant girl (Renée Adorée), the scalding trauma of battle leavened by pure-hearted heroism and sacrifice. Today, the naive style of the film meshes perfectly—that is, uneasily—with its militarism, with Sarris-approved Vidorian moments of grace emerging like crocuses: the enemies bonding in the blast-crater scene stolen by Erich Maria Remarque for All Quiet on the Western Front; the climactic reunion moment between Gilbert’s (spoiler) now one-legged vet and his mother (Claire McDowell), who flashes back to his toddlerhood and his first stumbling steps.

 

Vidor never decides, in his search for everyday heroism, which opposing force to champion—defiant personal freedom or the grand bond of the social fabric.

 

Vidor’s slick version of La Bohème (1926), one of his many why-not-try-it assignments, is dominated by Lillian Gish’s tragic conviction as the consumptive Mimi, and pales before The Crowd (1928), Vidor’s first original screenplay in almost a decade, and perhaps the first film of his that was designed from the ground up to be a Grand Statement, his first hand-delivered disquisition on human suffering and dignity. One of the few great American silents, The Crowd innovated by taking an iconographic approach to an Average Joe (John Murray), as he struggles to retain his singularity in the Metropolis-like torrents of New York City life (and in the Kafkaesque hive of office work) and faces heartbreaking loss and disappointment. Influenced by F.W. Murnau’s cartwheeling camera ideas, from The Last Laugh (1924) to Sunrise (1927), Vidor broke the bank on late-silent neo-expressionism, manipulating perspectives and traveling shots and generally crafting the urban whorl of 1928 according to a depressive paranoid’s daydreams. But even this film, with its intentionally simple characters and thrust, is something of a Rorschach test: Vidor never decides, in his search for everyday heroism, which opposing force to champion—defiant personal freedom or the grand bond of the social fabric.

This bind would catch Vidor again, but not before doing time with Marion Davies’s best silent comedies, particularly Show People (1928), a Hollywood self-mockery in which Davies, loving comedy but hampered by William Randolph Hearst’s insistence on melodrama, plays a “serious” wannabe who’s roped into Keystone Kops–style slapstick. The germ from this spawned the basic story of A Star Is Born (she’s on her way up, buddy-comic William Haines is on his way out), and the film is famous for a raft of cameos (Chaplin, Gilbert, Murray, etc.), though the deftest is Davies’s cameoing as herself—and getting sneered at by the film’s heroine. Comedy isn’t the very earnest Vidor’s home turf, though, and in fact, Davies’s crushing parodies of diva contemporaries Gloria Swanson and Mae Murray, which reportedly scored big at San Simeon parties, are spot-on, if actually a little mean.

For his first talkie, Vidor went rogue, strong-arming MGM into financing the first all-Black musical. Vidor shot Hallelujah (1929) on location in Tennessee and Arkansas with no known movie stars and a minuscule budget, ending up narratively with a vice-obsessed, Oscar Micheaux–esque saga of a sharecropper’s rise, fall, rise, and fall, putting gospel on a film soundtrack for the first time and paying royal attention to the industrial work processes of cotton bailing and lumberjacking. (It was written, like five other Vidor films, by Wanda Tuchock, one of only four women to get a Hollywood director credit between 1930 and 1950.) The performances can be as stiff as the early recording technology, but Nina Mae McKinney, as a jivey hooker/con artist, is famously fantastic, and Vidor’s eye for real-deal Americana is indelible.

Street Scene (1931) feels more like an ordinary early talkie, adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play, and set, foreshadowing Do the Right Thing, on a New York City block on a hot summer day that climaxes in violence. But while Elmer Rice’s script has lots of stereotypes (immigrant, ethnic, and otherwise), it also has a knack for ambivalence and shifting points of view, a humane texture Vidor digs into, with a busy sniping cast largely lifted from the stage (including the debuts of Beulah Bondi and John Qualen). Obviously turned on by urban bustle and congestion, Vidor sets his camera roaming, building to a crane shot over a gathering crowd that’s almost majestic.

He hit paydirt with The Champ (1931), a mushy redo of Chaplin’s The Kid that unfortunately made a star and Oscar winner out of professional asshole Wallace Beery. More interesting today is how Vidor’s wanderlust got him to engage with the early-’30s Polynesia melodrama fad, with Bird of Paradise (1932), shot in Hawaii. Joel McCrea, aboard a fully-manned yacht of indulgent white men, falls in with island princess Dolores del Rio, much to the chagrin of the native culture and, it’s made clear, the isle’s volcano god. Vidor’s visual energy is evident everywhere, from the magnificent tracking shot thru the trees and behind the running natives, looking out into the wide bay at the approaching boat, to the very pre-Code sequence in which the sullen McCrea, keeping night watch, is taunted and seduced in the black water by a nude-swimming del Rio. It’s old-fashioned, idealizing and simplifying the gorgeous, sweet-natured islanders just as Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, did a year earlier, and nowhere near as excoriating about the influence of white Westerners as W.S. Van Dyke’s Tahiti-set White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). Vidor was going for the full matinee thrill, packing in dense visuals and immaculate process-shot set pieces (including a convincing whirlpool and lava flow), as well as deft supporting-character performances, especially from the “natives.” Del Rio, draped only with a strategic set of leis for most of the film, goes a long way in justifying the film’s touristy glow and sense of indulgence with every bare-backed hoochie-koo and relaxed romp through the jungle.

It’s when you get to Our Daily Bread (1934) that you begin to wonder about the Vidor that kowtowed to Ayn Rand and made The Fountainhead 15 years later. Our Daily Bread is practically a New Deal PSA, an anti-capitalist, near-Marxist power-to-the-people tale that Vidor had to finance himself. The masses are the hero, no question this time. The plot is entirely taken up with how a penniless urban couple (Tom Keene and Karen Morley, bearing the same names as the couple from The Crowd) inherit a worthless farm from an uncle and build an agrarian commune, recruiting other roamers and economic refugees to settle down, contribute, and muster a DIY paradise in the scrubland, sans profit-making and exploitation. Still, the politics can be dicey, particularly once the new communards vote not for democracy or socialism but for a “strong leader.” All the same, the hopeful sense of determined community could make you weep today, and the last sixth of the movie, in which everyone frantically digs an irrigation canal to save the crops, is one of the most dramatic portrayals of labor in film history.

 

Vidor’s ideas about the roots and fallout of American can-do-ism are only practical, not moral or even political—which places him in the mainstream of mid-century studio filmmaking, before the blessings of doubt, guilt, and paranoia that film noir delivered after the war.

 

Vidor’s class warfare would continue in subtler forms: pitting bluebloods against the trampy low-class fierceness of Barbara Stanwyck, in Stella Dallas (1937), a huge hit and another sacrifice-for-your-kids weeper; turning Robert Donat’s idealistic young doctor 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 in this filmography, an anti-Soviet dishing that dares to posit Clark Gable as a snarky undercover Yank arguing ideology with KGB agents and blackmailed into marrying a Moscow streetcar conductor (Hedy Lamarr, trying for a Ninotchka), in order to whisk her out of the country. Honestly, Vidor didn’t have much of a funny bone, and neither did Lamarr—though now that we know about her autodidactic engineering prowess (co-inventor of a wartime frequency-hopping communications system still underpinning wireless networks today), everything she does is interesting. That leaves Gable, swigging from bottles and bouncing Ben Hecht quips, to keep the outrageous story in motion.

That same year, Vidor launched into the heartland again, with his patriotic American heart bursting, taking on the historical epic Northwest Passage (1940)—a famously misnamed film that covers only one-half of Kenneth Roberts’s bestseller and never gets to the titular passage. It’s a French and Indian War saga, which means for Vidor a deep dive into on-location men-in-the-wilderness bootstrap-ism, and for us a galling bath in slaughtering Native Americans. Indeed, the central village massacre is nearly on a par with the village razing in Apocalypse Now, except Vidor & Co. didn’t mean it as a horrifying critique. Macho militarism is the new variety of one-for-all collective here—the mountain men of Spencer Tracy’s militia outfit forming a human chain to cross rapids echoes other Vidor group heroics—and it’s an ideological toggle that undoubtedly went down smoother in 1940 than it does today.

When he goes big, Vidor’s ideas about the roots and fallout of American can-do-ism are only practical, not moral or even political—which places him in the mainstream of mid-century studio filmmaking, before the blessings of doubt, guilt, and paranoia that film noir delivered after the war. A more temperate entry, H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), revisits, via John Marquand’s novel, Stella Dallas’s combat with the social elite, this time following middle-aged Boston Brahmin businessman Robert Young as he flips through the passages of his unsatisfying life, which is primarily unsatisfying because his true love, a sassy, smart New York immigrant ad writer, played by Lamarr, refused to surrender her career and disappear into his wealthy family’s fold. You’d be unsatisfied, too, as Lamarr was never more lovable than here, and the story’s decades-long stretch builds to a rueful hotel room reunion that’s quietly, patiently painful. Lost time is just that, and the Hollywood happy ending that follows doesn’t ice the bruise.

Vidor was back at his aspirational passion with An American Romance (1944), in which Brian Donlevy plays a Czech immigrant whose dogged optimism and resourcefulness make him into a steel magnate. Nonsensically cut by MGM of a half-hour (from a 152-minute length), the film oozes Vidor’s roseate vision of America as a paradise for the individual’s accomplishment, though the fervent prettification of mass industrial production feels almost Soviet. In the end, despite Vidor’s handle on his actors’ warmth, his case was dimly made—it’s a film that starts from an ideal, not a story—and it remained the greatest self-professed disappointment of his career.

Duel in the Sun is another matter—an outrageously overblown mega-Western that was pumped full of radioactive intensity not by Vidor but by producer David O. Selznick, who clearly wanted another Gone With the Wind. With not a sprig of idealism in sight, and with no great love for either the striving individual or the community, it might be Vidor’s most entertaining film, as fluorescently colored as a Caribbean mural and so luridly arch that it virtually demands future camp-loving generations of fans. The weird off-ness of the film merely begins with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, two natural under-players, prodded into eating each other’s costumes as a pair of mutually psychotic cattle-empire lovers; you can practically hear Vidor pulling his hair out over Selznick’s maniacal demands. (Like Hearst with Davies, Selznick was building a castle in the sky for Jones.) As it was, Vidor walked before shooting was through, and it might be that your favorite vein-popping slab of the film was directed instead by subs Josef von Sternberg, William Cameron Menzies, or William Dieterle.

But that’s not the crucible upon which Vidor’s pantheon status hinges—it’s The Fountainhead (1949), arguably the most troublesome film of its decade. It’s certainly not just a respectful filmization of a popular message-tome that still speaks to readers who see themselves as victims of society’s mediocre majority—it is itself an act of ubermensch modernism. Vidor relays the tale about a Frank Lloyd Wright–style architect (Gary Cooper) battling the world for the right to his own integrity, and raps out, in thick paragraphs of dialogue, Rand’s “objectivist” doctrine, without a trace of detectable irony. Vidor also managed to make the only true Futurist film in American cinema, with a distinctive cement-and-bleached-beam veneer and a maniacally didactic narrative style. (Cooper doesn’t feel comfortable speaking Randian, but Raymond Massey, as the publisher of a muckraking paper, sure does.) In fact, the film seems to have been made in an alternate universe, where architecture is the country’s most imperative public concern, architects are thought literally heretical if they experiment, and hordes of citizens riot if a newspaper supports (on its front page) an untraditional building.  

As with all utopia-building, and with most anything Rand stamped her sensibility on, this film is sweeping, self-righteous nonsense; the final image of Cooper’s Howard Roark standing atop the world’s tallest structure, hands on hips, is a poster for a revolution that never happened.  There’s a crazy, innocent beauty to it that can only be attributed to Vidor, as confounded as he probably was by a postwar America freshly embracing commercial comfort and conformism, and no longer fueled by proletariat struggle.

As a smaller-budget palate-cleanser, and as a kind of riposte to the inflicted grandiosity of Duel in the Sun, Vidor next made a grittier Jennifer Jones Western, Ruby Gentry (1952), with a story that yet again centers on a white-trash heroine’s struggle against the moneyed classes. The film is actually closer to Southern Gothic, set in North Carolina and positioning Jones as the option-less spitfire surrounded by leering men, with only one—Charlton Heston, in one of his key bastard moments—worth her salt. The plot tries to frame Jones’s Ruby as a femme fatale, but by now we clearly see what’s going on, especially once the girl from the swamps gains economic power and begins exacting revenge on the whole town.

The retrospective’s final bow is Vidor’s penultimate film, the Dino De Laurentiis–produced version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956), a strange choice Hollywood had been more or less avoiding its entire life, shot in Vidor’s 43rd year of moviemaking. Largely miscast except for Audrey Hepburn’s Natasha, and simultaneously as top-heavy as so many big international productions of the day and cruelly condensed, the film feels negligible today, particularly when compared to the 1966–67 Soviet version that’s recently been restored and released on video. If you’d like to give it a Vidorian reading, it may represent the aging filmmaker’s complete loss of faith in both the community (here, the Russian imperial aristocracy) and the individual (Henry Fonda’s Pierre, lost in the wastelands of the Napoleonic invasion). 

Vidor had already grown fed up with one producer and studio head after another, and soon enough, with Hollywood itself. We’ll never know what he might’ve made of the ’60s. In his retirement, he puttered with projects on metaphysics, Andrew Wyeth, Christian Science, and the unsolved 1922 murder of actor/director William Desmond Taylor. He died at 88, two years into the Reagan administration, in a very different America.  ❖

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

King Vidor
Film at Lincoln Center
165 W. 65th Street, 212-875-5232
August 5–14

 

 

 

 

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