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The King Vidor File – Part One

The King Vidor File - Part One

If I saw a
movie more than once, I would add my reactions to each viewing. Turns out I
watched thirty-nine King Vidor pictures in those years, seven of them twice,
and of these I saw two of them three times. That means (figuring each film ran
a couple of hours), I spent about 96 hours in the presence of King and his
work, the most famous of these being such classics as The Big Parade (1925), The
Champ
(1931), Street Scene (1931),
and Duel in the Sun (1946), among
several others.

 

I was also fortunate enough to know King Vidor a little bit.
We met and spoke on several occasions, and, in fact, while I was part of a
short-lived Paramount entity, The Directors Company (in the 70s), I was going
to help produce Vidor’s most cherished unrealized project: The Extra. It was actually the tragic true story of James Murray,
an extra whom Vidor picked out to play the lead in King’s brilliantly powerful
silent masterpiece, The Crowd  (1928), one of the finest films ever made (see
below). Murray was superb in the picture, but unfortunately succumbed to
alcoholism and died young. King had loved Murray, and always wanted to tell his
sad story. Unfortunately, our company fell apart before we could get to King’s
movie and, sorry to say, it never got made.

 

What a lovely guy King Vidor was! Soft-spoken, friendly but
reserved, with a kind of slightly dreamy quality, as though he were existing on
a number of levels beyond the obvious one at that moment. He was very
spiritual, too, I felt, seeing always more than what was on the surface of
things.  Quiet, gentle but firm, he was a
great visual storyteller, and indeed his silent pictures are probably his best.
He could do so much with simply his choice of angle and lens; he had started as
a cameraman in newsreels, so he knew his craft. He also had a quite sensual
streak, as can be seen in The
Fountainhead
(1949) or Ruby Gentry (1952)
or, of course, Duel in the Sun.
Jennifer Jones was genuinely very sexy in the last two, and there’s rarely been
such heat between actors as there is between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead.  (In fact, it was the beginning of a torrid
affair that just about destroyed Cooper’s marriage.)

King Vidor was truly a gentleman and a scholar, and they
don’t make them like that anymore. And they don’t make pictures like the best
of his anymore either.

The films below are listed in the order in which I saw them.

 

JAPANESE WAR BRIDE (1952; d: King Vidor).

1952: Poor- (What more can I say?)

Added 1965: Good (Vidor tells the story of an American
family, whose son brings home a Japanese wife, with his usual eloquent touch,
emphasizing especially the beauty of the rural life, the mechanics of farming,
and well-capturing some of the reality of American farm life in a family and a
small community. The flaws in the picture are an under-developed script, with a
lack of dimension or originality, and, mainly, an inadequate cast, in
particular Don Taylor as the son; though he looks the role, he is painfully
unappealing. Shirley Yamaguchi is quite nice as the girl, and the supporting
players are all right.)

 

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946; d: King Vidor; uncredited: Josef von
Sternberg, William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Chester Franklin;
second-unit directors: Otto Brower, B. Reaves Eason; narrator: Orson Welles).

1954: (Huge, elaborately produced, greatly overblown
melodramatic western saga about a self-destructive love-hate relationship
between two passionate people. Overblown, but also rather effective.)

Added 1962: Excellent (A fantastic piece of work: stunningly
color-photographed, superbly directed super-western, typically Vidor in its
sensual qualities and its sense of the grotesque. Memorable, sometimes
outrageous, but beautifully acted; an exciting, fascinating memorable
achievement.)

MAN WITHOUT A STAR (1955; d: King Vidor).

1955: (Typical but quite exciting, full-blooded, rip-tooting
western—marvelously overplayed by Kirk Douglas.)

Added 1966: Fair* (Minor, if consistently vigorous Vidor,
about a gunman with an aversion to barbed wire and the youngster he befriends
and educates; conventional plot-turns mar the work, but it has a certain
dynamism despite it all.)

 

LA BOHEME (1926; d-p: King Vidor).

1958: Good* (Completely absorbing, superbly, sensitively
acted, well-directed and photographed silent film about the Bohemian artistes
of Paris in the early 19th century, centering on the love between
starving, genius-playwright Rodolphe and starving, self-sacrificing Mimi. A
real, wringing tear-jerker, the movie has many exquisitely wrought moments,
some comic ones, times of tenderness, taste, and talent. And the actors do not
talk—their gestures do that, the camera does that—in the real, universal
language of the cinema.)

 

HALLELUJAH! (1929; d: King Vidor).

1958: Excellent* (Vidor’s first sound film, with an
all-Negro cast. Though it’s a white-man’s conception of the Negroes, and its
story and songs have a Stephen Foster folksiness, the direction and use of
sound is exceptional and tremendously inventive. Vidor is a major director and
this is one of his major works.)

 

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949; d: King Vidor).

1959: Very good* (A personal, strikingly photographed and
directed morality play about an architect who refuses to compromise—a switch
really on some of the aspects of Vidor’s “The Citadel.” Effectively acted by
Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey; passionate, vigorous example of
style over matter.)

Added 1968: (Often ludicrous material, but done with such
strength and conviction that it is never ridiculous; the sexuality that was
behind “Duel in the Sun” and “Ruby Gentry” runs through this as well, perhaps
not quite as well. A director’s work, flawed by certain aspects of the script,
but not in the handling.)

 

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959; d: King Vidor).

1959: (Perverse, violent, sexy and effective Biblical
spectacle: typically expert Vidor technique; terribly acted, but superbly
color-photographed, edited.)

Added 1964: Fair* (Not one of Vidor’s best nor most personal
projects, but better than most spectacles, never as good as DeMille’s; it has
several very good sequences, love-making among the reeds, the battle of the
reflected sun, and a generally likable quality.)

 

THE SKY PILOT (1921; d: King Vidor).

1961: (Youthful, rather disjointed, but generally interesting
early Vidor western about a priest; excellent photography, good idea, but
decidedly dated.)

 

OUR DAILY BREAD (1934; d-p-w: King Vidor).

1962: (Personal, expertly photographed and edited story of a
married city couple who move to the country and start a farm for unemployed
workers during the Depression; brilliantly directed, memorable, thoroughly
engrossing.)

Added 1968: Very good- (Not among Vidor’s really first-rate
work, but damned fine nevertheless; the social-consciousness occasionally gets
in the way, and the ideas are often simplistic, but the power of the narrative
strength is undeniable, and the final irrigation sequence is magnificent.)

 

THE CROWD (1928; d-w: King Vidor).

1962: Exceptional (Realistic, but often stylized, modern and
powerful silent drama about an average guy, his dreams of glory, his final
realization that he is only part of the crowd. Beautifully, simply acted, but
brilliantly directed and photographed. A masterpiece of technique, content, and
personal cinema; bitter, vital, and as contemporary today as it was in 1928.
Perhaps Vidor’s best silent picture, and one that greatly elevates him in my
estimation.)

Added 2016: (This gets my highest rating: it is
one of the truly great films ever made, and it wasn’t a hit. But it is extremely
moving and easily translated into modern terms, which means it isn’t really
dated at all. There are memorable shots throughout that tell the story
visually, and the performances are simple and superb. They seem captured by
accident rather than acted. If you want to convince someone of the glory of the
silent era, show them “The Crowd,” made in the final extraordinary year of
non-talking pictures. As Chaplin said: “Just when we got it right, it was
over.”)

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