This forty-year veteran of the Hollywood studio system was at heart an independent filmmaker. Filled with a passion for the cinema from the day he saw George Melies’ delightfully weird A Trip to the Moon, King Vidor gave himself a grassroots tutorial in all things film. He got a job at his local Galveston, Texas movie theater where he learned projection. Soon, he helped a friend construct a motion-picture camera then shot documentary footage around the Houston area which he hoped would be his ticket to the Big Time.
King traveled west with his fetching, actress wife Florence, to begin a lengthy internship in Hollywood. Once settled, King took whatever work came his way before finally getting a chance to direct a feature of his own at the ripe age of twenty-five. For the rest of his long career Vidor would prove to be a fiercely iconoclastic filmmaker who followed the beat of a different drummer.
But what else could one expect from a director who embraced Populism (The Crowd, The Champ, and Stella Dallas), Socialism (Our Daily Bread), and the libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead)? Vidor’s protagonists were striving misfits. Rarely content to settle for the status quo their battles were fought in the arenas of business, politics and war, or played out in hungry affairs of the heart.
Sticking to his populist core Vidor’s earliest shorts covered a variety of genres. The enterprising young director’s heartfelt films found an audience and Vidor was savvy enough to parlay himself into a distribution deal with First National (the early version of Warner Brothers) and then build his own mini-studio, the aptly named “Vidor Village”. After budgetary problems hampered one of his more ambitious projects (The Sky Pilot) his venture as a director-mogul came to a crashing end.
The discouraged Vidor sold off his assets and accepted a job as a contract director at MGM. After struggling to find his niche in the notoriously suffocating “Tiffanys” of the Hollywood studios, Vidor embarked upon an amazing stretch of creativity, putting a much needed roar into the muted mouth of the MGM lion.
Based on a contemporary play by Rachel Crothers Wild Oranges was a saucy Jazz Age drama which owed no little in inspiration to the popular adult entertainments of De Mille and Stroheim. Mary (Eleanor Boardman) is a third generation Hollister at odds with both her mother and grandmother who chastise her about the morals of the loose crowd she runs with. Looking to give this relationship thing a shot carefree Mary finally decides to choose between two beaus Lynn (Ben Lyon) and Hal (William Haines) in her atypical manner.
The playboys must agree to keep their hands off Mary while shacking up with her for two weeks. The idea is unpopular with the elder Hollister women but Mary and her friends run off to implicate their mad plan anyway.
Set on a swampy island off the coast of Georgia Wild Oranges follows the plight of Millie Stope (Virginia Valli), a lonely but spirited young woman living with her exiled grandfather (Nigel de Brulier). Millie’s quiet life takes a wild turn when an escaped convict Nicholas (Charles A. Post) shows up and threatens to kill the Stopes if they betray him.
Meanwhile, John Woolfolk (Frank Mayo), a recently-widowed sailor, anchors on the coast and makes fast friends with the smitten Millie. Still mourning the loss of his wife Woolfolk warms to Millie and when he learns about the lurking convict he gamely tries to defend the Stopes but Nicolas’ jealous fury drives Millie and Woolfolk to make a daring escape over dangerous waters.
This early work of strange passions and thwarted desire proved a template for several of the director’s even more sexually neurotic films (Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry) set in desolation of the deep south or the old west where hungry libidos ripen and explode.
While at MGM Vidor was at the center of the studio’s dishy social set. After divorcing Florence he married one of his most prominent leading ladies (Eleanor Boardman) and struck up a personal and professional friendship with one of the most popular leading men of the day; John Gilbert. The three films Vidor and Gilbert made together went a long way in establishing their commercial reputations in a town where the fickleness of film audiences dictate professional career arcs.
The ambitious WWI epic The Big Parade follows the plight of James Apperson (Gilbert) an old-moneyed infantryman who, after a brief hazing, strikes up a brotherly friendship with two other soldiers (Tom O’Brien & Karl Dane) beneath him in social class. The dashing young doughboy also finds time to woo a lovely French villager (Renee Adoree) while awaiting his call to the front. This idyllic prelude is shattered by WWI’s hideous reality; trench warfare. After months of crawling in the mud, dodging German bullets and poisonous gas, James returns home missing a leg but, oddly enough, now in possession of a complete adult soul.
Based on an original story by Laurence Stallings (What Price Glory) this vast canvas of a film succeeds far better than Lewis Milestone’s preachy All Quiet on the Western Front in getting an anti-war message across yet, despite its size, it’s still full of the sort of tender feelings and humane touches which graced Vidor’s chamber works of the 1930s (The Champ, So Red the Rose & Stella Dallas).
La Boheme, MGM‘s adaptation of Henri Murger’s Life in the Latin Quarter, seemed a perfect way to match the studio’s most prestigious actress (Lillian Gish) with its number one male heartthrob (Gilbert) while exploiting the popularity of Puccini’s grand opera. Unlike the boy-men Gish was paired-off in her films with Griffith the aggressively earnest Gilbert doesn’t really connect with the ethereal actress, but Vidor proved adept in capturing the romantic sweep of the story helping make La Boheme one of the more wrongly overlooked films in the canons of all the major participants.
Vidor’s newfound zest for period dress films is very much evident in the third and last film he would make with Gilbert, Bardelys The Magnificent, a sophisticated swashbuckler based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. In a series of box office smashes during the decade Douglas Fairbanks had laid claim to the genre as his own but Vidor carved out his own niche by emphasizing comedy in this charming story of mistaken identities set at the court of the French King.
After taking the persona of an enemy of the King Bardelys is prompted by a bet to win the heart of a young woman (Eleanor Boardman) who has thus far has managed to resist his charms. When Bardelys is captured his foes at court choose not to reveal the aristocrat’s true identity and he is sentenced to die at the gallows. But when the late arriving King cannot grant a reprieve Bardelys slips out of his noose and fights off the all the court soldiers in a truly spectacular escape attempt.
Like so many other great pre-war American filmmakers (Capra, McCarey, La Cava, Sturges, etc.) Vidor embraced a populist outlook drawing upon the political ideologies of both the right and left. Where his cohorts utilized satire as means of jeering big business and cushioning the fall for their protagonists, Vidor’s “little man” films offer no such safety nets.
The Crowd, the brilliant but downbeat saga of a dreamer thwarted by tragedy and the mediocrity of everyday life, had to have felt like a bracing slap to audiences basking in the creature comforts of Coolidge’s America. Born at the turn of the new century on the 4th of July Johnny Sims (James Murray) seems destined for big things but the untimely death of his father turns Johnny into just another anonymous member of the crowd. Now in his late twenties, Johnny lives in a small Manhattan tenement with his wife Mary (Eleanor Boardman) and two kids, barely keeping his head above water in a dead-end job.
But, the young man’s boundless optimism and pluck results in his winning a grand prize in a slogan contest. As fate would have it Johnny’s daughter is killed in a traffic accident the same day sending him into a tailspin which sees him lose his job and self-respect. It takes an innocent compliment from his little son to pull Johnny back to his senses, swallow his pride, and start all over again.
With many of its gritty and expressionistic scenes shot on the streets of New York City, The Crowd is both a technical tour de force and a profoundly pessimistic film which went a long way in re-evaluating the American Dream.
Fast forwarding to the early years of the Great Depression we find Vidor’s fellow populists dabbling in neo-fascism in American Madness (Capra) and Gabriel Over The White House (La Cava), but King went in a diametrically opposite direction with Our Daily Bread. Here, he revives John (Tom Keene) and Mary Sims (Karen Morley) and pits them as a young married couple who leave the big city for the country where they turn their struggling farm into a co-op.
The pair cobbles together a bunch of destitute locals and through hard work and John and Mary’s resourcefulness the farm becomes a success. Like his namesake in The Crowd John shucks responsibility and succumbs to weakness, here in the person of a hot-to-trot blonde (Barbara Pepper), leaving all those who counted on him to pull up their bootstraps and save the farm.
The plot’s progressive theme didn’t interest any of the major studios so Vidor turned to his old friend Charlie Chaplin of United Artists who gave him the green light to make the film on a shoestring budget. The story behind the making of Our Daily Bread (recounted in Vidor’s autobiography) is probably more interesting than the earnest little film, but rare was the Hollywood director who was willing to attach his name to such a risky and controversial project.
The farming life would also take center stage in Vidor’s next film The Wedding Night, a pleasing Goldwyn production starring Gary Cooper as a New York writer who retreats to Connecticut to research a book about tobacco farmers. There, he falls in love with an immigrant girl (Anna Sten) who is bound by her father to a man she does not love.
In the twilight of his career Vidor would further explore the prejudices which arise in a cross-cultural romance in Japanese War Bride, a surprisingly sensitive chamber work from a filmmaker who had recently dropped Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest on an unsuspecting public.
Although Marion Davies was cruelly mocked as the untalented mistress of a media mogul (William Randolph Hearst) in Citizen Kane, she was in reality a marvelous comedienne who had the misfortune of being miscast throughout the 1920’s in a series of creaky costume dramas produced by her rich benefactor. Fortunately, her career and subsequent reputation were almost single-handedly resurrected in three comedies she would make with Vidor.
The Patsy is a genuinely sweet Cinderella story about the delightful airhead Patsy Harrington (Davies) who schemes to steal her selfish sister’s boyfriend (Orville Caldwell) to the dismay of her disapproving mother (Marie Dressler). Patsy’s plotting goes awry when the thick-headed beau misreads her advances. The meddling mama soon gets wind of her daughter’s deception she wreaks holy havoc. Under Vidor’s watchful eye Davies does some wonderful impressions (Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri) and gives a first-rate performance as an altogether charming girl lacking in self-esteem.
In Show People Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a high-minded, daddy’s girl who, unbeknownst to her, is cast in a slapstick film in which she is made to look like a buffoon. The movie’s a huge hit and the Georgia belle is soon teamed with her handsome co-star Billy Boone (William Haines) in a series of hit comedies. Now able to call her own shots Peggy foolishly abandons her old studio, comedy, and her beloved Billy, to become Patricia Pepoire, Empress of Hollywood.
This side-splittingly funny movie about the movies makes gentle fun of the sort of bloated romantic epics that nearly shipwrecked Davies’ career in the early 1920s. Show People is also peppered with cameos of Vidor and several silent screen giants (Chaplin, Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Gilbert, etc.) offering a fascinating portrait of an era which would soon draw to a close.
Based on a play by George S. Kaufman the early talkie Not So Dumb finds Davies playing Dulcy Parker, a rich socialite who hosts a party so her prospecting boyfriend (Elliot Nugent) can rub elbows with successful businessmen. Typical of productions based on plays during this period the comic scenes are rendered unfunny by incessant dialogue and as a result this last collaboration between Vidor and Davies doesn’t hold up well. Already in her early thirties Davies was growing too long in the tooth to play ditzy ingénues and her career browned-out.
By 1931 Vidor had evolved into a prestige filmmaker who was given free reign by studio producers to do more esoteric projects—just as long as he kept churning out the hits. Yet, his most popular films of the decade would also have a decidedly personal touch.
The Chaplinesque male weepie The Champ follows the colorful exploits of Andy Purcell (Wallace Beery), the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and his faithful son Dink (Jackie Cooper). A journeyman fighter on the circuit, Andy is hopeful for another chance at a title fight but years of heavy drinking and rough-housing have taken their toll. Young Dink tries in vain to keep his ne’er do-well dad on the straight and narrow and doesn’t lose faith even when Andy loses his cherished horse in a card game. The boy seems destined to keep his foolish father out of harm’s way until a chance meeting with a wealthy society woman reveals Dink is actually her child by former husband Andy.
Linda (Irene Rich) greases Andy’s palm and arranges to visit with Dink and introduce him to a life far from the rat-infested alleys and smelly locker rooms he has grown up in. Still, Dink remains steadfastly in Andy’s corner all the way up to a big fight with the champion of Mexico where Purcell absorbs a gruesome beating before delivering a surprising knockout blow. The effort proves too much for Andy’s heart but his demise opens the door for Dink to move in with his mother and have the sort of opportunities the champ could never give his son.
Vidor perfected this formula for Stella Dallas (1937) another searing take on unconventional parenting and the social classes. The Olive Higgins Prouty novel had been previously filmed in 1925 but the Henry King-directed silent shares little of the fire of the Vidor masterwork.
Aiming to escape her dreary working-class existence pretty Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) captures the attention of Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a blue-blood with a mysterious past. Stella marries the lonely man but it is soon apparent they are mismatched. Proud as a peacock, Mrs. Dallas wants to parade her new status around town while the retiring Stephen shies away from the public eye, preferring low-key dinners at home.
Stella’s pregnancy puts a crimp in her social calendar but after the birth of their baby girl she surprises everyone by turning into a doting mother. When Stephen gets a plum job in New York Stella chooses to stay behind in Massachusetts to bring up Laurel (Anne Shirley).
Over the next decade Stella sacrifices all to give Laurel the advantages and opportunities she never had but when her daughter begins running with the rich kids their parents turn against the socially unacceptable Mrs. Dallas. When Stella realizes she is impeding Laurel’s best chance for happiness she makes the ultimate sacrifice by divorcing Stephen so he can marry his true love Helen (Barbara O’Neil) and take custody of their daughter.
Stanwyck gives her career best performance as the refugee of an unhappy childhood home and a loveless marriage who finds strength through her daughter’s triumphs—even if she has to stand on the outside looking in. In both of Vidor’s remarkable “soapers” there is a complicated tenderness between the child-like parents and their unusually mature children prompting Dink and Laurel to make their own great sacrifices in order to save Andy and Stella from fates of squalor and loneliness.
Vidor was a free agent for much of the 1930s and he rarely made more than one picture a year. The maverick from Texas chose his projects with care and his eclectic taste carried the day. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Elmer Rice Street Scene would be another film about little people set in a melting pot neighborhood in lower Manhattan. The action is set on a hot midsummer’s day around the stoop of a brownstone where a gaggle of nosy neighbors gossip about the affair between Anna Maurant (Estelle Taylor) and a milk salesman. The illicit romance is suspected by both Rose’s brooding husband and her teenage daughter Rose (Sylvia Sydney) who is trying to win the favor of a shy Jewish boy.
Unlike many of the hit plays Hollywood was adapting during the early sound era Street Scene turned out to be a brilliant example of a filmmaker making a lot out of very little. Since all the action took place on a single set Vidor concluded he would have to work hard to keep his audience from growing bored, so he devised a mobile camera to dance along with the rich ensemble cast of mixed ethnicities. He succeeded in turning the topical and overripe material into sheer street lyricism.
Set in the South Seas Bird of Paradise was a nod to the popular fascination with Polynesian exoticism but Vidor’s take on indigenous peoples was more romantic than anthropological. This lush production about the forbidden affair between sailor Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and the beautiful island girl chosen by the elders to be sacrificed to a volcano has much in common with the director’s l’amour fou masterpieces (Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry) but Luanna (Dolores del Rio) turns out to be the rare Vidor heroine who lets her head rule her heart and leaves Johnny to pursue her grim fate.
One of the few first-rate films set during the Civil War So Red the Rose stars Margaret Sullavan as Valette Bedford, the belle of a prosperous Mississippi plantation. She pines for her unworthy fifth cousin Duncan (Randolph Scott) who reluctantly goes off to fight for the Confederacy as the locals brace for the onslaught of Sherman’s devastating March. Coming in at a mere eighty-two minutes Rose lacks the sweep of The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind or even Jezebel, but still it turns out to be a surprisingly delicate character study driven by the marvelous Sullivan.
When the subject of great westerns is brought up Vidor’s name is rarely mentioned even though he did direct one certifiable masterpiece in the genre (Duel in the Sun). Yet, Vidor was something of a pioneer having made one of the first watch-able oater talkies (Billy the Kid) and one of the few pre-Stagecoach A-list westerns (The Texas Rangers). Unlike most of the low budget westerns made around this time Vidor eschewed backlot shooting for realistic locations giving these early efforts refreshing sprawl and true grit.
Originally shot in 70mm Billy the Kid was another Vidor character study unfortunately hamstrung his veteran lead, Johnny Mack Brown, who didn’t have the acting chops to make the complicated relationship between Billy and Pat Garrett (Wallace Beery) come to life.
Rather than make a predictable tribute to a famous band of lawmen Vidor took a different tack with The Texas Rangers by telling the story of two bandits who join with the Rangers to track down the third member of their former gang. After narrowly escaping the long arm of the law Jim Hawkins (Fred MacMurray) and Wahoo Jones (Jack Oakie) decide to join the Texas Rangers so they can leak strategic tips to their friend on the lam, Sam McGee (Lloyd Nolan).
After an awkward initiation Jim and Wahoo turn out to be excellent lawmen and break ties with Sam. When McGee, as the Polka Dot Kid, commits a series of crimes Wahoo sets out have him arrested but McGee turns the tables and shoots him down instead. Having previously refused to cross his old friend, Jim is infuriated by news of Sam’s betrayal setting up a deadly showdown.
Jim and Wahoo are two unabashedly amoral heroes but with the dutiful Rangers as their humorless foils the men are forced to reform or get swept away by the tide of progress. The striking locales nearly upstage many colorful performances in this dynamic, well-spun western.
Skipping ahead two decades Man Without a Star shares many of the attributes which made Vidor’s first two westerns so appealing. It’s another buddy-buddy story though this time the good-natured scallywag of a lead plays mentor to a clueless young drifter who wants to experience all the glory the cowboy life has to offer.
After helping the local sheriff bag a murderer Dempsey (Kirk Douglas) signs on to work the range at a huge local ranch on the condition they hire a young friend “Texas” (William Campbell) he met on the boxcar that brought them into town. The bond between the men is torn when the beautiful ranch owner Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain) uses the gullible Texas to get back at Dempsey for quitting his job as her top man. Texas learns a hard-life lesson when his new girlfriend hires a ruthless gunslinger (Richard Boone) to run roughshod over the men and rid the town of the oddly conscientious Dempsey.
As in Billy the Kid and The Texas Rangers the two male protagonists tread warily between shady opportunism and doing what’s right. In this more mature work, the scarred and embittered Dempsey Roe takes an uncharacteristic stand to rid the territory of a spreading cancer.
Vidor’s return to the fold at MGM in the late 1930s meant continued financial prosperity and even more eminence among his peers but this period of filmmaking is his least interesting with one notable exception. The Citadel, H.M. Pulman, Esq. and the curiously flat epic An American Romance are all personal journeys of three very different men running up such obstacles as against ignorance, societal mores, and prejudice, as they try to get along in life.
The underrated H.M. Pulham Esq. is probably the best of the lot. Vidor shot a sensitive interpretation of the John P. Marquand novel in which melancholic blueblood (Robert Young) realizes the thwarted romance with the liberated beauty Marvin Ramone (Hedy Lamarr) to be the one beacon of light in his by-the-numbers life. Young and Lamarr are surprisingly effective as the star-crossed couple who suffer the pangs of missed opportunities and lost love. The curiously upbeat ending ruins the elegiac mood and shows Henry to be little more than a dull conformist, after all.
Lamarr would also co-star with Clark Gable in Comrade X, a Ben Hecht-penned screwball comedy inspired by Ninotchka filmed, not so incidentally, at MGM the previous year. Here, Gable plays a spy posing as a newspaper reporter in Moscow who, as a favor to an old friend, agrees to smuggle the man’s out of favor daughter out of the country. Complications arise when Mac Thompson finds he’s attracted to the gorgeous, Marx-sprouting Theodore and they soon discover her mentor is the same man who has instructed the police to round up and execute all of the country’s political prisoners.
Based on a historical novel by Kenneth Roberts, the Technicolor adventure Northwest Passage is a surprisingly bleak and downright punishing film even by Vidor’s vigorous standards. Set during the French Indian War, Spencer Tracy plays Major Robert Rogers, a difficult taskmaster who sets out with a motley band of men to find the elusive northwest trail to the Pacific. He is joined by aspiring artist and aristocrat Langdon Towne (Robert Young) who is horrified by Rogers’ treatment of the soldiers but holds the Major in awe, nonetheless.
After a rough and mosquito-infested journey into the mountains the soldiers ruthlessly destroy a dangerous Indian settlement but when they arrive in Canada worn-out and hungry at an important rendezvous they find themselves staring death in the face. Drawing from deep within, Rogers rallies the mutiny-minded men to buck-up and repair an abandoned camp in blind hope reinforcements will arrive.
The ill-treatment of Native Americans will undoubtedly rankle revisionistas, but the hard-bitten Northwest Passage doesn’t buy much into the white man’s Manifest Destiny, either. The road to opening up the country was open for idealists and opportunists alike.
While many film critics and scholars have anointed The Big Parade and The Crowd as the official Vidor masterpieces his most inspired and best work was done in a series of sex-fueled melodramas made in the twilight of his career.
Oddly enough, the precursor to these neurotic barn-burners was the early talkie Hallelujah, an all-black music-drama set in the Deep South. Vidor drew upon his own roots to film a raucous, fire and brimstone tale about Zeke (Daniel L. Hayes) an innocent cotton farmer led astray and into the hoosegow by the sexy bad girl Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). Zeke finds salvation in jail and when freed he becomes a popular country preacher, but to his horror, and delight, the troubled Chick comes back into his life.
The sheer conviction of Hallelujah puts just about every other “race” movie made by a Hollywood studio to shame. Unfortunately, the film’s refreshing portrayal of adult themes, its transcendent religiosity and stark eroticism didn’t inspire the film industry to treat blacks with greater respect. Indeed, the film’s alarming power—and lack of a market below the Mason-Dixon Line— likely reinforced Hollywood prejudice. African-Americans would be mostly portrayed as bug-eyed Toms and plump Mammies for the next twenty-five years.
Conversely, Vidor was likely able to get away with portraying such an overtly sexual relationship on screen because his two protagonists were indeed black. With the advent of the production code American audiences wouldn’t encounter another randy couple like Zeke and Chick until a pair of mismatched lovers torched the old west seventeen years later.
Having finally severed ties with MGM after the war, Vidor accepted David O. Selznick’s invitation to direct the producer’s new wife Jennifer Jones in the epic western Duel in the Sun. Selznick was infatuated with Jones and chose her projects carefully with the intention of propelling her to superstardom. While Jones’ commercial career arc fell short of Selznick’s intentions her body of work holds up extremely well and her smoldering interpretation of the half-caste Pearl Chavez may well be her best performance.
After her ne’er do well white father (Herbert Marshall) dies in a gunfight defending the honor of her Indian mother, the orphan Pearl is left under the care of his former girlfriend Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) who is now the unhappy wife of the ruthless Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). Living near the servant’s quarters next to the McCandles ranch Pearl is left to grow up wild and she cultivates a strange passion for the apple of the Senator’s eye and black sheep son Lewt (Gregory Peck).
Lewt’s older brother Jess (Joseph Cotten) is infatuated with Pearl and although she does not love him she is flattered by the attentions of the cultivated member of the McCandles tribe. Forever at odds with the Senator liberal Jess is evicted from the ranch to the dismay of Laura Belle. After Lewt goes on the lam to avoid a murder charge, Laura Belle dies of a broken heart and the family fortunes descend rapidly. Haunted by her desire Pearl spurns Jess and follows Lewt into the desert where the star-crossed lovers murder one another in a shoot-out for the ages.
Known to the camp crowd as “Lust in the Dust” (in reference to the no-holds barred finale) this crazy, blood and thunder horse opera has had plenty of misplaced scorn heaped upon it over the years. But by unleashing the sensual Jones as a driving force, encouraging the typically staid Peck to play a completely amoral lout, and opting to forgo the traditional approach to the genre for a baroque mise-en-scene, Vidor created something completely unique in the Western canon. Pumped along by a Dimitri Tiomkin score and some juicy performances, this grand Technicolor film plays as big as opera and when the dust finally settles it’s not a stretch to call it Vidor’s masterpiece.
For a filmmaker who identified with the little people, Vidor’s accepting Warner Brothers’ offer to direct Ayn Rand’s uncompromising novel about individualism, The Fountainhead, seemed out of character. But Vidor’s ever-darkening vision reflected the unsettled paranoia of the cold war era, and it’s likely he saw Howard Roark as a ruthless alter-ego to the enterprising Johnnies of The Crowd and Our Daily Bread.
Novice architect Roark (Gary Cooper) rejects a well-paying position to create the sort of cookie-cutter buildings he abhors. Instead, he takes a job as a quarryman in the hopes he will one day have enough money to fund his own dream projects. Through the influence of the girl who got away, Dominique (Patricia Neal) and her influential media mogul husband (Raymond Massey), Roark is green-lighted to oversee the building of a public housing project to his exact specifications. But when Roark finds his plans are hopelessly compromised he blows up the building. Vidor develops the perverse relationship between Roark and the appropriately-named Dominique as a percolating subtext and their passion boils over with her very willing compliance in the architect’s mad plot.
The didactic Rand rants actually fit neatly into the populist lore of old Hollywood and here the filmmakers blur the right wing thrust of the content just enough to pacify discerning liberals in the audience. Vidor ultimately generates great sympathy for the single-minded architect’s plight with sweeping Romantic direction, climaxing in the finale where a triumphant Roark towers over the city as Dominique ascends to join him. Clearly, the sky’s the limit.
Despite its notoriety as Bette Davis’ not so fond farewell to Warner Brothers Beyond the Forest plays far better today than the post-Now, Voyager soaps she churned-out for the studio. Here, Bette dons a black mop of a wig to play Rose Moline, the unsatisfied wife of small town doctor. She is not too distant a cousin to Vidor’s previous other side of the tracks girl, Stella Dallas, but Rose has real anger issues.
Distracted by the demands of his job Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten) is oblivious to Rose’s carrying-on with the successful big city businessman Neil Latimer (David Brian). Rose uses her ample charms to seduce Latimer then forces Lewis’ poor patients to pay their bills so she can finance a trip to Chicago where she asks Neil to marry her. Latimer turns her down but lust finally gets the best of him and he proposes to Rose unaware she is carrying Lewis’ child.
When her chance for happiness is threatened by a neighbor willing to rat her out, Rose shoots the man down in cold blood. Pleading the shooting was an accident Rose gets off scot-free but after Latimer postpones their elopement she goes into a deep depression. Anxious to get back to her man, Rose devises a mad scheme to kill the life inside of her but the incident causes internal bleeding and she dies writhing on the platform of the local depot as a train pulls out for Chicago.
Beyond the Forest doesn’t maintain the crazed momentum that define Vidor’s great films but the steamy scenes between the refreshingly amoral couple are as transcendentally rotten as anything in Studio Era Hollywood film.
Vidor’s last great film Ruby Gentry, an independently produced melodrama of the Deep South, cast Jennifer Jones as Ruby Corey, a white trash girl wrongly suspected of foul play. Ruby’s sordid plight begins when she learns her horny former boyfriend, Boake (Charlton Heston) is engaged to the local banker’s milquetoast daughter. Not one to be left behind Ruby marries the gullible but successful businessman Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and flaunts her newfound social status to the disapproving town folk.
When Jim dies suspiciously in a boating accident all fingers point to Ruby’s guilt and she is quickly cast out by the local community. After Ruby learns these hypocrites were actually in debt to her deceased husband she forces them to pay off their old debts, bankrupting many in the process. Ruby breaks Boake as well but as much as he tries to resist her, the attraction proves too strong, sealing his doom in the deep, dark swamp. Eerie, atmospheric, and unsettlingly carnal, Ruby Gentry capped off a stretch of inspired filmmaking from the iconoclastic Texan.
Vidor continued to land important projects during the 1950s, but he seemed to have little enthusiasm in filming the sort of big, impersonal epics that were carrying the day. The biggest problem with Vidor’s take on Tolstoy’s War And Peace was the casting of the iconic fifty-two year old Henry Fonda to play Pierre Bezukhov, the young, conscientious misfit who drives the unwieldy narrative. As Hollywood-produced historical epics go, it’s a colorful entertainment which truly comes to life in the spectacular sequences where the Russians stand up to Napoleon’s invading troops on the bloody battlefield.
Vidor found similar inspiration in the battle scenes in Solomon & Sheba, an otherwise bloodless epic of the Old Testament starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollabrigida. The film opens promisingly with Solomon’s brother, and would-be King of Israel, Adenoma (George Sanders) offering an alliance to the defiant Queen of Sheba (Lollobrigida) who, as means of a reply, whips the warrior into submission. Sheba meets gentle resistance in the poetic Solomon (Brynner) and soon she enters into an affair with this true heir of David’s throne.
Neither Yul nor Gina have the charisma or acting chops to carry the sprawling story—the regal Brynner looked a lot smaller when forced to wear a toupee. The epic seemed on the verge of petering out until the thrilling sequence in which Solomon’s depleted army bamboozles his brother’s well-armed rebels into falling into a pit hundreds of feet below. It was a fitting finale for a quixotic filmmaker who found inspiration in the most unusual places.
Books on Vidor:
A Tree Is a Tree – King Vidor **** This engaging memoir from a vastly underrated filmmaker paints a vivid portrait of 1920s Hollywood and the friends (Chaplin, John Gilbert, Irving Thalberg, Lillian Gish, etc.) Vidor made there. His sound films are given relatively short shrift but given the book was published in 1953 it’s likely he was writing for an audience nostalgic for Tinseltown’s golden era.
King Vidor, American – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon” **** Veteran film critic/historian Durgnat and Simmon collaborate to produce what is, for now, the final word on the classic Hollywood director from Galveston, Texas. Threading biographical elements with lively and sharp film by film analysis the authors make a splendid case for Vidor as a major American artist.
King Vidor on Film Making – King Vidor **** An excellent bookend to A Tree Is a Tree offers sage advice and intriguing insight on how Vidor’s own movies got made. The passages on technology and special effects are a little dated these days but the director’s joyous enthusiasm for his métier should provide inspiration to film school novices.
The Hollywood Professionals Vol. 5: King Vidor, John Cromwell, Mervyn LeRoy – Clive Denton (Vidor segment) *** Denton’s entry on Vidor is pleasant but disposable. Kingsley Canham’s fine essays on the underrated John Cromwell and the versatile Mervyn LeRoy are more enlightening. Out of print
Films by Vidor:
1922 Peg O’ My Heart ***
1924 Wild Oranges ***1/2
1925 Proud Flesh ***1/2
1925 The Big Parade ****
1926 La Boheme ***1/2
1926 Bardelys the Magnificent ***1/2
1928 The Crowd ****1/2
1928 The Patsy ****
1928 Show People ****
1929 Hallelujah! ****
1930 Not So Dumb ***
1930 Billy the Kid ***1/2
1931 Street Scene ***1/2
1931 The Champ ***1/2
1932 Bird of Paradise ***1/2
1932 Cynara ***1/2
1933 The Stranger’s Return ***1/2
1934 Our Daily Bread ***1/2
1935 The Wedding Night ***1/2
1935 So Red the Rose ****
1936 The Texas Rangers ***1/2
1937 Stella Dallas ****
1938 The Citadel ***1/2
1939 Northwest Passage ***1/2
1940 Comrade X ***1/2
1941 H.M. Pulham Esq. ***1/2
1944 An American Romance ***
1947 Duel in the Sun ***** (w/Willem Dieterle & Josef Von Sternberg)
1949 The Fountainhead ****1/2
1949 Beyond the Forest ***1/2
1951 Lightning Strikes Twice ***
1952 Japanese War Bride ***1/2
1952 Ruby Gentry ****
1955 Man Without a Star ***1/2
1956 War and Peace ***1/2
1959 Solomon and Sheba ***