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King Vidor Reigns Over Lincoln Center As Part of Retrospective


From August 5th through the 14th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a major retrospective devoted to the director, King Vidor. Below is a commentary on the screenings that I attended.

La Bohème from 1926 was Vidor’s next work after his very successful The Big Parade—one of his strongest silent films, unfortunately screened in this series only in a digital format. It is based on Henri Murger’s famous Scenes of Bohemian Life, the source for Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, and was a project selected by Lillian Gish who was then at the peak of her career. Her magnificent performance as Mimi is one of the most memorable aspects of this moving work. Although the director had some disagreements with the actress about her approach, he nonetheless went on to say that “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.” (John Gilbert who was the lead in Vidor’s previous feature, is also superb as Rodolfe.) Gish had substantial control over the production but the material was evidently congenial to the director who here displays his mastery of melodrama, a genre of which he was to become one of the finest practitioners in Hollywood, alongside such sterling exemplars as D.W. Griffith, John M. Stahl, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli, among others. La Bohème features striking photography by Hendrik Sartov, who had worked with Gish previously, but regrettably the original elements do not appear to have survived in a pristine state, diminishing what visual pleasures it must have originally afforded. The presentation featured live piano accompaniment by the excellent Donald Sosin who performed along with all the silents in the series.

The Crowd, another of Vidor’s most important silent films and one of his most expressionistic despite its commitment to naturalism, is about the marital and economic struggles of a low-level worker in a large New York firm. It too has an extraordinary pair of leads: Eleanor Boardman—the director’s second wife—and James Murray, whom he discovered and who went on to have a tragic life that later inspired an unproduced screenplay by the filmmaker. The theme of the American Dream was to prove a crucial one in the Vidor’s career and his work displays a remarkable class-consciousness—he went on to re-use these protagonists in his even greater Our Daily Bread of 1934, one of the most left-wing films ever produced in Hollywood, which was screened in this series only in a digital format. A bravura crane shot traversing an endless series of office desks would seem to have influenced similar shots in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Orson Welles’s The Trial. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard said, “Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it?” I hope someday to have an opportunity to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film with a score by Carl Davis. Dave Kehr’s capsule review for the Chicago Reader is worth quoting:

King Vidor’s 1928 classic, with James Murray as the “average man” picked out of the crowd by Vidor’s gliding camera. In his autobiography, Vidor claims he sold the project to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit war film,The Big Parade: “Life is like a battle, isn’t it?” Accordingly, the misfortunes that befall Murray are hardly average, but the melodramatic elements are integral to Vidor’s vision of individual struggle. The camera style owes something to Murnau, but the sense of space—the vast environments that define and attack his protagonists—is Vidor’s own.

Immediately after The Crowd—and released in the same year—Vidor directed two romantic comedies—a genre that he only infrequently essayed—that demonstrated the delightful talents of the underrated Marion Davies. The first, The Patsy, is the more substantial. In a hilarious sequence, the actress does amazing impressions of Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. Marie Dressler is amusing too as the character’s unsympathetic mother. The second film, Show People, a spoof of Hollywood, is slighter but quite charming and co-stars the appealing William Haines as the love interest of the heroine. Davies does an equally astonishing impression of Gloria Swanson here.

Vidor’s subsequent feature of the following year, Hallelujah, a religious musical with an all-Black cast, is one of his most perfectly realized and was a personal project partly financed with his own salary, although it proved to be a popular success. The director commented on the inspiration for the film:

I used to watch the negroes in the South, which was my home. I studied their music, and I used to wonder at the pent-up romance in them.

In his 1953 autobiography, A Tree is a Tree, he said about Hallelujah:

The sincerity and fervour of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.

The film is also notable for the indelible first screen appearance of Nina Mae McKinney.

Street Scene, from 1931, is an adaptation of the eponymous, acclaimed play by Elmer Rice—it later became an opera with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes—but, like Hallelujah, is photographed, very creatively, like a silent movie, despite almost entirely being filmed on a single set. The distinguished source, however, like that of many stage works turned into motion pictures, does seem to hamper the film somewhat—one would have liked for a scenarist to have re-written the dialogue for the new medium. One asset is the incomparably beautiful Sylvia Sidney in the lead role. The justly famous theme music—it is a clever pastiche of George Gershwin—is by Alfred Newman.

Vidor’s following feature, The Champ, released the same year and which was an enormous success, is less original and more conventional in style but nonetheless incredibly moving, especially for Jackie Cooper’s astounding child performance. The film helped revive Wallace Beery’s career. As heartbreaking but more complex as a work of social criticism is Stella Dallas from 1937, a superior remake of the excellent Henry King silent of the same name—again with a Newman score and elegantly photographed by the superb Rudolph Maté. The effect of the director’s accomplishedmise-en-scèneis amplified by a marvelous cast, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, and Alan Hale.

Vidor’s next work, The Citadel, released the following year—an adaptation of a novel by A.J. Cronin, who wrote the classic novel, The Stars Look Down, famously filmed by Carol Reed—seems less personally charged despite Vidor’s admiration of the material but is certainly worth seeing. Handsomely photographed by Harry Stradling, it too has a wonderful cast, including Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Francis L. Sullivan, Cecil Parker, Nora Swinburne, and Felix Aylmer.

After this, Vidor contributed most of the outstanding black-and-white Kansas sequences in David O. Selznick’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as those of “Over the Rainbow” And “We’re Off to See the Wizard”; he then completed a masterpiece, Northwest Passage of 1940—shot in glorious Technicolor—a patriotic itinerary Western about the French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century, which was screened in an astonishing 35-millimeter print from the archive of the George Eastman Museum. The director replaced W. S. Van Dyke after shooting began but his visual imagination was wholly engaged despite this. The cast includes a charismatic Spencer Tracy and an unusually good Robert Young in lead roles.

His following film, Comrade X, released the same year, is an entertaining, if lightweight and less personal, comedy—an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka—attractively photographedby Joseph Ruttenberg, and with an amusing screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, with uncredited work by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Of the leads, Clark Gable is characteristically excellent while the stunningly gorgeous Hedy Lamarr is surprisingly so. The fine secondary cast includes Eve Arden, Felix Bressart, Oscar Homolka, and Sig Rumann, the latter especially hilarious.

Vidor attempted something more significant and more in line with his thematic preoccupations with his next opus, which was released the following year, H.M. Pulham, Esq.,from the novel by John P. Marquand, which Harold Bloom unpredictably prophesied—in The Western Canon—would prove to be a permanent book. Certainly a creditable achievement, the film nonetheless seemed to me to be less imposing than one might have expected given the director’s expected affinity for the material. One weakness may be Robert Young’s performance which lacks the pathos and wit that Ronald Colman brought to a comparable role in a more satisfying adaptation of a work by the same author, The Late George Apley, by a filmmaker of comparable stature to Vidor, Joseph Mankiewicz. Lamarr is again unusually convincing as the bewitching object of his youthful affection. The supporting cast includes Ruth Hussey, Charles Coburn, and Van Heflin. The director’s note on H.M. Pulham, Esq. is worth citing:

Here was American life today told in terms of American humor, romance and a generous sprinkling of our home-grown satire. In addition, the story covered a span of more than 30 years, and I saw a chance to present a sort of American cavalcade of the significant events of this century while telling the human story of an American gentleman.

The book is written in the first person. It was all told from Harry Pulham's viewpoint. This is responsible for much of the deep human psychology of the novel. Here was a challenge. Could a motion picture be told completely in the first person? It would mean that nothing could happen in the entire picture unless it was seen or witnessed or experienced by Pulham. We decided to try it. The result is that in the picture nothing happens that is not experienced by Pulham.

So Robert Young is in every scene of the picture or is in the room when every scene happens. In the case of telephone conversations, no one is shown at the other end of the line. We only hear what Pulham hears. We do not see the other person at any time, for this would be letting the audience see something that Harry Pulham didn't see.

Much more ambitious was Vidor’s next work, An American Romance, a very personal project released in 1944, the third part of an informal “War, Wheat and Steel” trilogy with The Big Parade and Our Daily Bread.(The novelist John Fante was an uncredited contributor to the screenplay.) Unhappily, the film was severely cut by about fifty minutes and was unsuccessful commercially. What remains, artfully photographed in Technicolor by Harold Rosson, is of genuine interest, however, if maybe not amongst the director’s supreme achievements—two sequences of industrial assembly are especially compelling. An American Romance stars Brian Donlevy—whom the director thought was miscast—and Ann Richards. (Vidor originally wanted Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten, all of whom were unavailable.) This too was shown in stellar 35-millimeter print from the George Eastman Museum. In A Tree is a Tree, Vidor had this to say about his experience after finishing the film:

When the picture was previewed in Inglewood, Louis B. Mayer came to me on the sidewalk in front of the theater, put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'I've just seen the greatest picture our company ever made'. However, an order came from the New York office to cut half an hour. They cut the human elements of the story instead of the documentary sections, explaining that this was the only way a half hour could be taken out without complications in the musical soundtrack. In other words, the film was edited according to the soundtrack and not according to the inherent story values. At the lowest emotional level I have reached since I have been on Hollywood, I went to my office, packed up and moved out of the studio. The picture was not a box office success. Many of the inhabitants of Hollywood and Beverly Hills have never seen the film and many do not even know it was made. I spent 3 years of my life on the project and MGM spent close to $3,000,000.

His next movie, the grandiose Duel in the Sun from 1946, a sublime Western photographed in dazzling Technicolor, is mesmerizing despite considerable interference from its producer, Selznick, as well as cuts demanded by ratings review boards. Disagreements with Selznick purportedly caused Vidor to quit the project two days before the end of shooting. Like other prominent films of the producer, such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, uncredited direction was undertaken by many hands, including Josef von Sternberg (who also served as color consultant), William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Otto Brower, Sidney Franklin, along with Selznick himself but, even so, Vidor’s vision is discernible. (Duel in the Sun also had three cinematographers: Rosson again, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan.) The source for the story is a novel by Niven Busch whose distinguished contributions as a screenwriter include Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, and uncredited work on Minnelli’s Gigi; he also wrote the book that was the basis for Anthony Mann’s The Furies. Jennifer Jones is uncommonly convincing in the lead role and breathtakingly alluring. Gregory Peck gives a brilliant, atypical performance as her rakish lover. The secondary cast is probably the most notable of Vidor’s entire career, including Gish again, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Sidney Blackmer, Otto Kruger and, above all, Butterfly McQueen. The film was screened in a superlative 35-millimeter print from the Museum of Modern Art.

The erotic intensity of Duel in the Sun is continued in The Fountainhead from 1949–after Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel—one of the pinnacles of Vidor’s œuvre. The director’s ambivalence toward the author’s ideology generates a productive tension with the material. Rand’s dialogue is deliriously crazy; for the director, it serves as one vehicle for the expression of the larger-than-life passions that surge through his characters’ lives, as one can observe in many of his most essential films, such as Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun, and later in Beyond the Forest—released the same year but disappointingly not screened in this series—and Ruby Gentry from 1952, shown here only in a 16-millimeter print. With his cinematographer, Robert Burks—most celebrated for his terrific collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock—he found the most enthralling visual correlatives for these almost cosmic energies. A glamorous and entrancing Patricia Neal is a revelation in a cast that includes Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, and Ray Collins.

Vidor’s Hollywood career concluded with Solomon and Sheba in 1958, a difficult production that he did not judge as fully successful. In 1964, he executed a very strange essay-film in 16-millimeter Kodachrome, Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics, which reflects his religious views—he was a Christian Scientist—and which is a kind of brief for philosophical idealism. (For an intriguing defense of this work, as well as an interpretation of the director’s style, see Fred Camper’s fascinating article, “The Myth of the Avant-Garde Film.”) He completed another short documentary in 16-millimeter in 1980, Metaphor, mostly a record of conversations on the title’s subject between Vidor and Andrew Wyeth, his favorite American painter. Wyeth’s favorite film was The Big Parade, which he claimed to have seen at least 180 times! Both films were screened in a digital format. As a footnote to the retrospective, the final program also featured Journey to Galveston, also from 1980, an estimable short 16-millimeter portrait of Vidor—shown in digital—at his ranch, directed by Catherine Berge, who talked at length about the background to the film before the presentation.

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