BREAD, LOVE AND BLAST FURNACES
A born Texan, used to wide horizons, King Vidor wasn’t one to waste time on small subjects. Having almost single-handedly rescued MGM with his romantic take on War in The Big Parade, he was encouraged by Irving Thalberg to attempt the examination of Life which gave birth to The Crowd. Thereafter, from time to time and with varying degrees of success, he would turn his attention to Race (Hallelujah), Medicine (The Citadel), Steel (An American Romance) and Construction (The Fountainhead).
As ideologues go, the mild-mannered Vidor had little in common with such tub-thumpers as DeMille. The urge to proselytise affected him only periodically, leaving him free between times to direct the more conventional productions that make up the bulk of a remarkably long career, numbering more than seventy films. The retrospective presently running on French television does him a disservice by juxtaposing his inspirational pieces with more pedestrian material. It preceded The Citadel, for example, with the 1926 Bardelys the Magnificent,featuring a heavily bewigged John Gilbert in the kind of late silent costume piece parodied in Singin’ in the Rain. With such films, it’s not so much a case of Jove nodding as of the old boy falling into a coma.
|An American Romance|
Vidor was on surer ground in the forties and fifties, when Hollywood became sufficiently prosperousto accommodate his grandiose visions and forgive his indifference to relationships. An American Romance documents Brian Donlevy’s transformation from illiterate immigrant to Detroit auto-maker but deals perfunctorily with his marriage to Anne Richards, one of Australia’s less distinguished gifts to Hollywood. The romance of the title is not with Richards but with Steel, and Vidor, a genuine enthusiast for industry, refuses to fob us off with montages of bulldozers and riveters, instead evoking the glamour of rolling mills and open-hearth furnaces, one of which, in the film’s most accomplished sequence, tries to douse Donlevy in molten metal.
|Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead|
Once one discounts the demagoguery of Ayn Rand, Vidor’s adaptation of her novel The Fountainhead is a tour de force, celebrating Construction at the expense of the complex links between architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), newspaper magnate Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) and his wife Dominique (Patricia Neal). Cinematographer Robert Burks lights Edward Carrere’s doors, staircases, tables and armchairs at least as artfully as the characters, illustrating the observation of design guru Norman Bel Geddes (the true eminence grise of the film rather than the more widely advertised Frank Lloyd Wright) that furniture is meant as much to be looked at as used. Massey must surely have been cast less from any psychological authenticity than because his craggy profile resonates with the Cyclopean office from which he controls his empire, while Neal, the perfect consort, follows style by arriving at a party in formal gown but provocatively innocent of handbag or jewellery. Would you put earrings on a Brancusi?
|"...the final image of Cooper triumphantly tumescent at the |
summit of his skyscraper, The Fountainhead
This vision coalesces in the final image of Cooper triumphantly tumescent at the summit of his skyscraper as the elevator carrying Neal soars to unite them. Vidor lived for such moments – and almost died for them. For a scene of New York’s canyons through the windows of an ambulance he replicated his own memory of watching the city in the same way as he was rushed to hospital following a heart attack.
|Bette Davis, Beyond the Forest|
Even in his lesser films, industry is never entirely absent, though more often as a hostile element that poisons relationships. Aside from the westward progress of the railroad in Duel in the Sun and the encroachment of barbed wire on the range in Man Without a Star – Kirk Douglas, incoherent with rage, trussed up in the stuff provides one of the iconic images of Vidor’s work -he illuminates Bette Davis’s lurid love life in Beyond the Forest with the glare of the blast furnaces that sustain her steel-town home – a community dismissed with her famous first line “What a dump!” Davis is further and more dangerously reincarnated in the Jennifer Jones character of Ruby Gentry, where her eponymous white-trashnouveau richewidow brings onetime lover Charlton Heston to heel by flooding the plantations on which he lavishes the affection she regards as rightfully hers. Both women lose out. They could have learned from The Fountainhead that there’s no room for love between a man and his work.
|"...paean to collectivism", Our Daily Bread.|
Vidor’s urge for the Big Picture could well have been extinguished by one of his earliest attempts, the 1934 Our Daily Bread. (He referred to its theme as Wheat. That isn’t what the film’s amateur farmers plant, though one can understand his unwillingness to name it after their actual crop, Corn.) Despite the success of The Big Parade and the lesser, though respectable returns from The Crowd, Thalberg declined to back this story of dispossessed city folk who take over a bankrupt farm and run it as a commune. Militant Republican Louis B. Mayer despised it, nor were banks anxious to invest in a film where squatters highjack an auction and browbeat a sheriff into relinquishing a property for pocket change.
|"...imbued with superhuman strength by the |
power of the collective,"Our Daily Bread.
The film concludes with a Stakhanovite hymn to labour as one-time pants-pressers, travelling salesmen and violin teachers, imbued with superhuman strength by the power of the collective, hack a channel overland from a reservoir to irrigate their failing crop. Other American films of the time advocate some form of co-operative as a partial solution to economic collapse, and the proposition became a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Vidor takes the idea and runs with it. Debating the political system that will govern their enterprise, the refugees dismiss democracy and even socialism as proven failures, and give total power to the farm’s original tenants, John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morley). As monarchy supplants the American Republic, the assembled proletariat cheers.
Despite this paean to collectivism, Vidor escaped the forties anti-Communist witch-hunt – unlike Karen Morley, whose career would be destroyed by the blacklist. Morley and other leftists found Vidor a primitive populist, a conservative with a naive faith in the willingness of people to come together for the common good. Like Bertolt Brecht, whose smiling denial that he had ever been a communist was accepted at face value by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which permitted him to return to East Germany with its best wishes and thanks, Vidor’s innocent belief in man and his works disarmed even the most cynical. How could one think ill of a man who loved blast furnaces so much?
Editor’s Note: John Baxter’s 1976 monograph on Vidor incorporates materials from his interviews with the director.
KING VIDOR. Monarch Film Studies. Monarch/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1976. It can be purchased on Amazon