John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.
John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.
But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.
There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:
- his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
- his ideas about Native American history
- his sense of Irish identity
- his respect for the US miltary
- the roles for women in his films
- his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
- his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
- his position re the concept of ‘film author’
No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.
All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.
The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.
We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.
I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.
I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.
The sad death of Irrfan Khan means a look back to some of his most significant films. The Warrior marks the point in Irrfan’s career when he had reached an impasse. Although he had already spent 14 years working in TV and film in India, he was thinking of giving it up since he was getting bored with jobs that didn’t stretch him or interest him. Fortunately he heard about Asif Kapadia’s project to make The Warrior and when the two men met they got on very well and became firm friends. When Irrfan’s death was announced at the end of April, Kapadia released a moving tribute to his friend.
Asif Kapadia is Indian-British. Born in London and taking a route through UK higher education he eventually emerged on the international scene with a short film The Sheep Thief (1997) which caused a stir at various festivals. Shot in Rajasthan this is available on the DVD of The Warrior and it clearly set up the possibility of a feature set in India. The Warrior was fortunate to emerge at a time when there was more support for British film with the development of a funding and support infrastructure through the British Film Council set up by the new Labour government elected in 1997. This co-production was no doubt underway before The Film Council took over British Screen, but the new structure was always likely to try to highlight this release. It was given a spread in Sight and Sound in 2002 and won various awards around Europe. It didn’t make any direct impact in the film market in India but it did introduce both Asif Kapadia and Irrfan Khan to the European and North American segment of the festival circuit and this in turn would strengthen his position in India.
Film 4, one of the UK partners involved has long been a supporter of Indian cinema in the UK, albeit in the early hours of the morning. Still, it has links to Indian film industries and film culture and in 1994 had funded a controversial diaspora film by Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen. The Warrior is a very different kind of story with Kapadia and co-writer Tim Miller turning to Japanese folk-tales (presumably the reason why ‘the warrior’ is known as ‘Lafcadia’ in some listings, a possible reference to Lafcadia Hearn the Greek-Irish writer famous for his books on Japanese ghost stories). If the story is Japanese, the film also draws on Japanese cinema as well as Chinese cinemas (Taiwan/HK?) and spaghetti Westerns (which also derive from Kurosawa et al). The film narrative is very simple. ‘The Warrior’ (he isn’t named in the film) becomes disgusted with his feudal lord’s commands which mean executing tenants who can’t pay annual rents and raising villages to the ground, killing everyone. When he rebels, The Warrior becomes an outlaw pursued by the lord’s other warrior retainers. After his son is executed by his enemies he escapes to the desert, but he is finally saved by his companionship to a boy and to a girl and her family. The plot involves some ‘magic realism’ in terms of the girl. The desert scenes were shot in Rajasthan and the mountain scenes in Himachal Pradesh. I was struck by the several shots of lone trees in the desert and the use of extreme long shots covering the journeys taken. Some of these made me think of traditional East Asian visual art rather than the style of contemporary Indian cinema. I’ve included several images of the ‘long shot style’ here.
At around 86 minutes, the film is short but it is packed with some stunning cinematography by Roman Dosin on his first film as DoP. The music by Dario Marianelli works well with the ‘Scope photography. I think both Osin and Marianelli must have met Asif Kapadia in London. They worked on his next few films. The star of the show, however, is Irrfan khan. He has relatively little dialogue, but he says a great deal with his eyes, one of his strengths. Kapadia does well to organise a cast which includes only a few other professional actors amid a much larger group of local non-professionals, some of them in significant roles.
Since his critical success with this film, Asif Kapadia has had no luck with three further features, none of which made much money, but he has become a hot name in documentary with his trio of biography pics, Senna (UK-Brazil 2010), Amy (UK 2015) and Diego Maradona (UK 2019). I hope he doesn’t give up on features and if I can find time, I might look at the earlier ‘flops’. Irrfan Khan’s career took off from this point. He got more prestigious roles in Hindi cinema and was recruited by diaspora and American/European directors shooting in India.
I should apologise to Donen fans for this delayed tribute to an important director. My practice is to study the list of obituaries in Sight & Sound and pick out those I would particular like to honour and remember. This year my study of this resource has itself been delayed.
Stanley Donen moved from Broadway production to Hollywood’s M-G-M as a choreographer. Here he teamed up with Gene Kelly with whom he had worked on the Broadway production of Pal Joey. The duo choreographed a number of dances in the excellent Anchors Away (1945). And, in 1949, they teamed up to co-direct the now classic On the Town (1949).
This is one of the great Hollywood musicals and a film that pioneered the move to location shooting. The opening ‘New York New York’ sequence is a memorable number and, when in New York, there is a great opportunity to wander round the sites of the song and dance. Working with cinematographer Harold Rosson and editor Ralph E. Winters, Donen produced an unconventional but dynamic street ballet.
In 1952 Donen and Kelly together helmed the equally entertaining classic, Singin’ in the Rain. This was a delightful send up of the transition from non-talkie to talkie films in Hollywood in the late 1920s. It has some remarkably funny scenes and some great musical numbers; the title sequence must be the most watched song and dance performance to come out of Hollywood. Kelly was ably supported by Donald O‘Connor and Debbie Reynolds. All three were nearly outperformed by Jean Hagen.
Donen then had a solo direction on another classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Adapted from a story from ancient Rome, ‘the rape of the Sabine Women’, this is a period musical. It does not have quite the panache of the contemporary musicals but still has some great song and dance numbers.
Donen also directed one of the last classic Kelly musicals It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Plotted as a sequel to On the Town it never matches the intensity of the earlier musical, but there are, as always, some great sequences with Kelly demonstrating his skills on roller skates.
Donen then left M-G-M and worked both for other studios and independently though none of these titles match the earlier classics. In 1960 he moved to Britain. The great age of the screen musical was in its decline. He still worked on a number of successful films, usually with some financial and or production input by a Hollywood studio. The most well-known is Charade (1963) on which Donen was both producer and director. This was a Hitchcock-style thriller with Audrey Hepburn and [the much older] Cary Grant. It does not have the resonance of Hitchcock’s actual films but it has wit and excitement and a suitable MacGuffin.
The other late film of Donen’s that I really liked was Two for the Road (1967), again with Audrey Hepburn playing opposite Albert Finney. The film was scripted by Frederic Raphael and has an unconventional and non-linear narrative. Joanna (Hepburn) and Mark (Finney) have to re-examine their marital relationship whilst driving in Southern France. So the film is both a romantic drama and a road movie.
Donen directed twenty film titles. Only a few are classics and most of these are the musicals; one could add to those mentioned above The Pyjama Game (1957), starring Doris Day and co-directed with George Abbott, with whom Donen worked on a couple of occasion. Interestingly co-direction is a recurring feature in the work of Donen, something that throws a spanner in the work of auteur specialists. However, especially in the musicals, there is a distinctive style and approach from Donen. Some writers have referred to the idea of ‘cine-dance’. In his work with Gene Kelly Donen pioneered a new style of film musical; both men were always ready and interested in experimentation.. These are smaller scale than many of the great earlier film musicals and relying on a sense of the actual rather than the stylised. The presentation of song and dance is beautifully choreographed, not just in the performances, but also in the way they are filmed, visually and aurally. The ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence is a model of this. Kelly’s performance is perfection but the way that the camera follows or advances with him and the quality and timbre of the recording are why this sequence can be watched time and time again.
I might add that Stanley Donen, like the other film people, who passed on last year, has received rather less than usual from Sight & Sound. Usually the February issue contains the printed listing and comments on those who went to the great cinema in the sky. This year I scanned the March issue, which now appears in February; no obituaries? This was the same in the following issue. An email to the S&S office revealed that they were only online. Worse, I have as yet been unable to find any reference in the printed issues of the magazine to this ‘downsizing’. I do think they deserve better.
Check out the obituaries.
Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.
The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.
The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.
The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.
Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)
Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download.
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.
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.