King Vidor Retrospective

The 70th Berlinale is presenting an extensive selection of films by this key Hollywood director. The majority of the films are screening from 35mm prints and several are in their original Technicolor format. The silent films will have musical accompaniment provided by Frank Lubet, Maud Nellisen and Richard Seidhof; the latter two provided accompaniments at the 2018 Weimar retrospective. And Kevin Brownlow, who advised on the programme and who was responsible for some of Vidor’s silent films being restored, will be giving an introductory talk.

Vidor was a long-serving and extremely successful director. He started at Mutual Film in 1913 after working as a newsreel cinematographer and cinema projectionist. He made his first feature, The Turn in the Road, in 1919 and in 1922 signed with the Goldwyn Company, later to become the premier studio of M-G-M. He carried on directing features into the 1950s, but made a couple of essay films before he died in 1982.

Vidor had many successes and was nominated five times for the Academy Best Director Award, but was pipped on every occasion by another filmmaker. This was an experience shared by quite few of the outstanding directors working for Hollywood studios. He did receive an Honorary Life-time Achievement Award in 1979. I remember that Charlton Heston once argued in an interview that the nominations for Academy Awards were what really counted as these were made by one’s peers in the industry.

Titles:

Bud’s Recruit, 1918. This is newly restored two-reeler which was part of a series by ‘Judge Brown’ [not actually a judge], involved in the reformation of boys. This episode is more about youthful patriotism than reformation. Vidor directed a number of these.

The Other Half, 1919. An incomplete five reel film which stared Vidor first wife, Florence. Two soldiers return from World War I; one is a manager at a factory, the other an ordinary worker; and there is conflict over their differing interests.

The Sky Pilot, 1921. This is a new digital restoration of a feature length drama adapted from a novel of the same name. The ‘sky pilot’ is not an aviator; the title is slang for a religious preacher. He arrives in a small Canadian valley where he has to prove his relevance. Some impressive action sequences and the finale is paralleled in a later Vidor western.

The Real Adventure, 1922. Another restoration but still incomplete. Florence Vidor plays a wife who makes a career independently of her husband.

Wine of Youth, 1924. A drama adapted from a play, produced at M-G-M, about a young woman faced with two very different suitors; the film stars Eleanor Boardman, later to grace Vidor master-work, The Crowd.

The Big Parade, 1924. A restored version of the film that made Vidor’s name, one of the great successes of the 1920s. US soldiers join the war in France. It stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée as his French sweetheart. The film features fine cinematography by John Arnold and Charles Van Enger.

Bardelys the Magnificent USA 1926. Also a restoration and also starring John Gilbert with Eleanor Boardman. A swashbuckler tale from the pen of Rafael Sabatini set at the court of Louis III.

La Boheme, 1926. A version of the famous opera by Puccini,but based on the source novel, ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème’ by Henri Murger. It starred John Gilbert, Renée Adorée and Lillian Gish. The latter star was the dominant person in the production; her status in Hollywood meant she could choose her roles and have a important input into productions.

The Crowd, 1928. This is the outstanding Vidor film of the silent era. The main characters are a young couple, Mary and John Sims, played by Eleanor Boardman and James Murray; the latter relatively unknown. The film was atypical of major Hollywood productions. The narrative, following the couple making their way in 1920s New York, is fairly downbeat. The style, showing the influence of the revered German film industry, mixes actual location with with stylised studio special effects. The cinematography by Henry Sharp is outstanding. The production experimented with a number of different endings, some more downbeat than others. The film was released in two different versions but the ending that remains is ambiguous and is capped with a bravura final camera movement. The film received nominations for what were the first ever Academy Awards.

The Patsy, 1928. The first of three films where Vidor directed Marion Davies, a fine comedienne. She plays the put-upon daughter by her imperious mother and elder sister. But she starts to assert herself. One sequence has Davies doing imitations of Hollywood female stars in order to garner attention; one of her specialities.

Show People, 1928. The film stars Marion Davies, probably at the peak of her career. It follows the rising career of a star struck youngster who goes to Hollywood. Her rise to stardom has a strand of irony regarding the studio town. And the film has a large number of cameos by actual Hollywood stars. The film was released with a synchronised soundtrack of music and sound effects; this the year of the arrival of sound in the industry.

Hallelujah, 1929. This is a milestone film, a drama with an all-black cast. It was also Vidor first sound film, marrying location filming with studio recorded sound. Vidor personally pushed the project. He had grown up in the Southern state of Texas and he wanted to show Negro life as he had observed it. However, M-G-M, relying on white audiences, with screenings and cinemas for black people frequently segregated, was nervous of such a project. This partly explains that the film features negative stereotypes of Negroes in the period. And black audiences mostly had to see the film in segregated auditoriums. The film uses Negro music and spiritual along with dialogue with a real sense of vitality and with some impressive set-pieces. The film was controversial but remains a milestone in the studio output.

Billy the Kid, 1930. This biopic of the frequently filmed outlaw was produced in the early sound aspect ratio of 1.20:1. It was also filmed in a 70mm format ‘Realife’, but no copies of the latter survive. Wallace Beery appears as Pat Garret.

Street Scene, 1931. Adapted from an award winning play the film is in three acts, the opening act almost entirely restricted to one set. Here we see and hear the residents of a block of New York apartments. This is a sort of populist drama of ‘little people’. In acts two and three the settings expand as does the camera work by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, often impressively mobile for early sound. The final act is the most melodramatic. A lead player is the young Sylvia Sydney.

The Champ, 1931. This is a conventionally plotted boxing film, as a fighter, past his prime, attempts to make a come back. Wallace Beery in the title role won the Best Actor Award and Frances Marion, the scriptwriter, won Best Story.

Cynara, 1932. Adapted from a novel, the film is composed mainly of a flashback. A lawyer, played by Ronald Coleman, revisits an affair which ruined both his marriage and his career.

Our Daily Bread, 1934. This was an independent production produced and directed by Vidor. A couple similar to the husband and wife in The Crowd, [John and Mary Sims – Tom Keene and Karen Morley], move to a rural farm during the Great Depression;. The drama focuses on co-operation and the development of a collective. But this is not socialism. The property and leadership of the commune is held by John Sims. And the major threat in the film, alongside the depression, is a city moll out of sync with the collective. The cinematography by Robert Planck and editing by Lloyd Nosler is very fine, especially a bravura sequence where the farmers dig an irrigation ditch.

The Wedding Night, 1935. This film has some parallels with Our Daily Bread but lacks the sense of community. A writer (Gary Cooper) moves back to his rural home in order to produce a novel. This creates problems in his marriage. He also develops a relationship with a young Polish girl, (Anna Sten) and the film has a very strong romantic feel but also a tragic ending.

So Red the Rose, 1935. This is an adaptation of a Civil War novel. Margaret Sullavan leads as a wife who waits on the plantation as the men, [including Randolph Scott], are away at the front. The novel preceded ‘Gone With the Wind’ as this film adaptation preceded that of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. There are numerous parallels but this title is only a third of the length of Selznick’s epic.

The Texas Rangers, 1936. This western has a familiar plot as two ex-outlaws become rangers and have to hunt down their old colleague. Their is also a a complication involving an Apache war party.

Stella Dallas, 1937. This is the second version of a 1920s novel about maternal self-sacrifice. The film has an impressive lead performance by Barbara Stanwyck and a tear-jerking final sequence.

The Citadel, 1938. This was a British production by M-G-M at the Denham Studio . adapted from A. J. Cronin’s novel which follows the attempts of a crusading doctor to fight illness, disease and medical bureaucracy.  His battle is first in a Welsh mining town and then in the poorest area of London. Robert Donat was impressive as the idealistic doctor.

Northwest Passage, 1940. Based on a novel of the same name and set in the C18th with wars by the British colonialists against the French and the Indians. The much sought passage is never passed in the film, but is the goal of the an expedition led by Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) in the never-made second part. The film is fired by the ambition and consequent privations of the expedition which starts out as an attack on Indians/Native Americans, here getting a pretty bad deal by the colonialists and by Hollywood. Vidor’s first film in the new Technicolor process.

Comrade X, 1940. Here the Soviet Union gets the negative representation by Hollywood. The adventure her involves a US correspondent using a pseudonym ‘Comrade X’, and as a romantic interest a Moscow bus conductor (Hedy Lamarr). As in a parallel comedy, Ninotcha, capitalist charm outplays Soviet morality.

H.M. Pulham Esq., 1941. Based on the novel of the same name a married and conservative business man remembers in a flashback an earlier love, Marvin (Hedy Lamar). Later in the film they meet again, but now both are married and have commitments.

An American Romance, 1944. The romance is the rise of a immigrant Stefan (Brian Donlevy) as a steel and aeroplane magnate. Vidor wrote the story aiming at an ‘epic of steel’. The film used a lot of documentary footage of industry and factories. Shot in Technicolor, the studio cut it from 151 minutes to 1121 minutes: Vidor was gutted.

Duel in the Sun 1946. Famously nicknamed ‘Lust in the Dust’. The film had five other directors after Vidor shot the bulk of the film but as an ‘auteur film’ it should be credited to David O. Selznick. It was an adaptation of a western novel. Its explicit content [for the period] led to problems because of the Motion Picture Production Code and objections by religious organisation. The leads are Jennifer Jones as a Mestizo, Pearl, and Gregory Peck as Lewt. Peck gives one of his best performance as a villain rather than a goody. The ending is much discussed and one of the great finales.

The Fountainhead, 1949. Adapted from the novel by Ayn Rand who also scipted the film; demanding that none of her dialogue was altered. Despite the additional tropes of Hollywood movies the film does exemplify Rand’s extreme individualism . The hero, an architect played by Cary Cooper, resists the most powerful pressures to compromise his artistic vision. The added melodrama produces a hot-house feel to the film.

Beyond the Forest, 1949. Adapted from a novel and including noir-like city sequences. The star, Bette Davis, was unimpressed with the film claiming it had “the longest death scene ever seen on the screen”. [Certainly surpassed by Bernardo Bertolucci and John Malkovich]. Davis’s character is the most extreme example of her screen persona, exploiting men and people, though this catches up with her. The studio, for the sake of morally sensitive audiences [and the arbiters of the Motion Picture Production Code] inserted an opening title warning of the ‘evil’ in the story.

Lightning Strikes Twice, 1951. Adapted from a novel ‘A Man Without Friends’. This is a western in which a woman is involved with am a man who is possibly guilty of murder. She is played by Ruth Roman and he by Richard Todd; the latter had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) which treats the situation rather differently.

Japanese War Bride, 1952. A Korean veteran marries a Japanese girl and bring her home to California. There she faces prejudice and outright racism. The film’s treatment of the issue caused a stir on release.

Ruby Gentry, 1952. A small town/rural drama. Jennifer Jones is the titular character, ‘born on the wrong side of the tracks’. She suffers from the prejudice of the small-minded attitudes in a southern coastal town. But she also suffers from her passion for Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), from a local aristocratic family, Boake Tackman. Their relationship rises and falls and ends tragically.

Man Without a Star, 1955. Kirk Douglas plays the titular character in this Technicolor western. As Dempsey Ra he rides into a Wyoming cattle town and then a range war. The conflict is between small holders and a cattle baron. Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crane). At the end Dempsey rides on his way, following ‘no particular star’.

War and Peace, 1956. This handsome adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel was filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision. It was an Italian/USA co-production by Ponti-DeLaurentiis. The film mainly follows the plot, condensed, rather than the characters and themes of the novel. However, the leads in the film – Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer – are good. The Battle of Borodino is impressive and Herbert Lom gets the opportunity to play Napoleon.

Solomon and Sheba, 1959. The film was shot in Technirama but also screened in 70mm. Originally Tyrone Power was cast as Solomon and when he died was replaced by Yul Brynner. Gina Lollobrigida played Sheba and had a percentage deal in the film. The plot likely left biblical scholars scratching their heads. And there was at least one risqué scene with Lollobrigida. Biblical epics were popular in this period but this is is not the best example.

Many of Vidor’s films are genre titles. However, even here, in many of them,, there are familiar themes which propose an auteur approach. The themes are not necessarily religious despite his adherence to Christian Science. What does occur frequently are characters who push the physical situation as far as they can; often suggesting a belief in the power of the mental over the physical. He presents both male and female characters driven by some ambition of passion. Vidor was in some senses a populist, making a number of films about ‘little’ or ordinary people and their problems and situations. However, he is generally conservative and collective action is nearly always subservient to leadership.

Vidor used extensive location filming throughout his career, even in period when the Hollywood companies rarely ventured from their studios. And his film offer a skilled use of the moving camera, so that there is generally a strong sense of dynamism and movement. And Vidor usually got involved in the editing of the films, not always the Hollywood way.

Vidor was always looking to work on individually interesting films and produced several. He quietly supported the independent The Plow That Broke the Plain (1936). He frequently worked on the scripts and/or provided the stories. He was also an important influence on the spoliation of directors in the studio system. He was a founding member of the Screen director’s Guild,later the Directors Guild of America.

The Berlinale pages have an overview of Vidor and his films by the staff involved in selecting the programme. It is an extensive selection including all his major films and also a number of minor titles. Some of the films are extremely difficult to see and some have not been seen for a considerable period so this is a great cineastes’ opportunity.

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