King Vidor, the Versatile Messenger

King Vidor, Patricia Neal, and Gary Cooper during the making of The Fountainhead (1949)

“I believe in the motion picture that carries a message to humanity,” wrote King Vidor in 1920. He’d already directed and appeared in a good number of shorts and features, and then, in his midtwenties, he founded his own production company, Vidor Village, with a brief statement of principles that Variety found newsworthy enough to publish in full. The company lasted a mere two years, but the credo carried on ringing out loud and clear in the more than fifty features Vidor made in the decades that followed.

From Friday through August 14, Film at Lincoln Center will present a retrospective that begins chronologically with The Big Parade (1925), starring John Gilbert as a soldier sent to France to fight in the First World War. Writing for Slant in 2013, Jake Cole noted that the fighting “begins with a slightly over-cranked death march that drags out the meticulously timed steps of the men (Vidor had them march to the click of a metronome while shooting), stressing how they have become automatons ordered to walk blithely to their doom . . . For all its grandeur, The Big Parade concerns the individual response to forces bigger than any one person, be it war or its attendant clichés, and if so many films have copped various elements since the film’s release, few have managed to replicate its soft touch.”

Screenings of La Bohème (1926), The Crowd (1928), The Patsy (1928), and Show People (1928) will feature live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin. The Crowd is not only Farran Smith Nehme’s “favorite silent, but one of her favorite films, period.” Especially after the spectacular success of The Big Parade, it was also “one of the boldest departures in American silent pictures,” as David Thomson wrote in the DGA Quarterly in 2011.

“Where later pictures would champion the rewards of a strong work ethic,” wrote Matthew Thrift in his annotated list of ten essential Vidors for the BFI, The Crowd “sees a series of cruel indignities heaped upon its life-worn everyman, with momentary wins undercut by tragedy. Expressionist flourishes make way for earthy realism, influencing filmmakers from Vittorio De Sica (who half-inched the ending for 1952’s Umberto D.), to Billy Wilder, who would borrow the film’s famous office shot for The Apartment (1960).”

John and Mary Sims, the struggling couple played by James Murray and Eleanor Boardman in The Crowd, are revived by Tom Keene and Karen Morley in Vidor’s sequel, Our Daily Bread (1934). The Great Depression has forced the Sims to leave Manhattan and to try to make a go of it farming a tract of devalued land far and away from the city. MGM didn’t see the money in Our Daily Bread, so Vidor mortgaged his house to make it himself. Charlie Chaplin ensured that it would be distributed by United Artists.

Writing for Firstpost in 2019, Srikanth Srinivasan noted that Our Daily Bread’s celebration of “collectivization, its distrust of cigar-chewing banker types and, especially, its assertion of a working-class identity over racial and national identities lends it an obviously communist flavor . . . But Vidor was not a communist; he was a conservative who later joined the anti-communist group called Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. It may simply be that Vidor found the idea of a self-sufficient people building a community to be a very American notion.”

The 1937 melodrama Stella Dallas “earns the copious tears it jerks, embodying the ‘weepie’ in every respect, yet more complicated and more flush with genuine emotion than a mere soap opera,” wrote Scott Tobias at the Dissolve in 2014. “As played by Barbara Stanwyck, the eponymous character is a near-deranged status-seeker who also happens to have a strong maternal instinct, and the film’s genius comes from putting those separate impulses into conflict.”

Surveying the retrospective in the Wall Street Journal, Kristin M. Jones notes that several of these films “feature strong performances by actresses playing spirited characters, including Hedy Lamarr in two less familiar gems. She is captivating as a streetcar conductor devoted to communism in the screwball Comrade X (1940) and touching in H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), about a man with a buttoned-down upbringing (Robert Young) who recalls loving an ardent, independent woman he worked with at an advertising agency.”

With the sprawling western Duel in the Sun (1946), producer David O. Selznick aimed to match and maybe even outdo the success of 1939’s Gone with the Wind. “What Selznick got instead was a screaming Freudian fantasy, full of the dark sexuality characteristic of Vidor’s late career (Beyond the Forest, Ruby Gentry),” wrote Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader in 1985. “Contemporary wits called it Lust in the Dust, and there’s no doubt that it goes too far in almost every direction—but that touch of obsession is exactly what saves it.”

In 2012, Nick Davis found himself wondering “how do you even react” to The Fountainhead, the 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel about an individualist architect (Gary Cooper)—with a screenplay by Rand herself. “Do you extend the movie credit for its insolent individuality, regardless of whether or not its hectoring rhetoric and halting, reversal-prone dramaturgy are anything you’d want to experience again?” asked Davis. “Is it possible to rate the film without judging the philosophical system that doesn’t just underpin it but pours uncut from the mouths of its characters? They only exist, after all, as does the film, as delivery vessels for Ayn Rand’s vehement ideology.” Ultimately, Davis decided that “sui generis, splendid-looking provocations, however schizophrenic and politically dubious, deserve some reward.”

In 1954, Italian producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti announced their intention to spend six million dollars on an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By comparison, the budget for Gone with the Wind was $3.85 million. The producers approached Elia Kazan to direct and Marlon Brando to star, but that deal fell through. In the end, they went with Vidor, Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Henry Fonda as Pierre, and Mel Ferrer as Andrei.

“At such a financial level,” wrote André Bazin a few months after the 1956 release, “the cinema becomes a producer rather than an author/director, as too many imponderable (or ponderable) contingencies come into play. Vidor’s role was therefore most probably that of master builder. Well, the building is standing, solid, square, and balanced, and if it does not reflect any personal qualities on Vidor’s part, it at least has all those of American cinema, particularly its admirable attentiveness to the direction of actors.”

Vidor himself disliked his follow-up, the 1959 biblical epic Solomon and Sheba, and it’s not part of FLC’s program. But two short documentaries Vidor made toward the end of his career are. In Metaphor (1980), shot two years before he died, Vidor talks with painter Andrew Wyeth about art and influence. Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1964) may be the most surprising film in the oeuvre. As Dan Callahan noted in Senses of Cinema in 2007, Vidor “expounded directly on his view that man is God and mind is all. He answers that old question, ‘When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one hears it?’ with a resounding no.

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