Part One: The Director
King Vidor was born in Galveston, Texas, February 8, 1894. The small island had been home to Akokisa and Karankawa Indians in the centuries before, but when French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle claimed the area for King Louis, the Gulf of Mexico was charted from the Texas coast to New Orleans, and the area where the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers converged at the coast was named Galveston Bay. Incorporated in 1839, Galveston quickly became the most active port west of New Orleans and the largest city in Texas.
King was six years old in the summer of 1900. In the heat of his August vacation, life in Galveston went on as usual, but the Vidor family was unaware that just off the western coast of Africa, a tropical Atlantic wave was building to Biblical proportions. On August 27, the gathering storm churned about 1,000 miles east of the Windward Islands, and the maelstrom was first observed when a ship reported Mother Nature’s wrath as “unsettled weather.” The storm passed through the Leeward Islands on August 30, gathering power. By the time severe winds struck New Orleans early morning on Friday, September 7, the port city underwent heavy damage along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. By that same afternoon, large ocean swells threatened the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston Island, as if angry devils were within the waves, and as a devastating hurricane grew out of the tempest, winds increased to a hurricane.
By night, the storm’s fury descended suddenly upon the Vidors and all inhabitants of Galveston Island. Wind speeds could only be estimated, but no one misjudged the 15 1/2-foot wave surges rolling over the island from the gulf to the bay. In the deluge, houses instantly flooded and collapsed, and the surges continued shoving a churning wall of water and debris at least two-stories high across the island.
King’s family slept directly in the path of destruction, but their slumber soon ended, as every house in their neighborhood was battered and thrown into the waves. Storm-tossed wreckage billowed over the island continually throughout a night of terror. Terrible carnage was visible beneath streaks of lightning that revealed the wreckage strewn about the island. No one escaped loss of property or family, and houses were flattened from the beach to the harbor.
In the morning, people awoke to a different world. There were no animals, no trees, and nearly everyone had lost much of their personal belongings. Where churches, schools, and shops once thrived, only piles of debris remained. The debris buried the dead beneath the rubble of their homes. There was not a building in town that was left unharmed. Hundreds of survivors were busy throughout the day clearing away the fragments and recovering the dead. Women wept at what they found among the ruins, and men rallied to shoot those found robbing the dead. More than 6,000 of Galveston’s 37,000 inhabitants had been killed and horse-drawn wagons passed by each hour to pick up the corpses. They meandered through streets filled with people in all degrees of destitution, and then they slowly ambled to the sea that had tormented them just hours before. Ominously calm waters ferried the boats that were bobbing in the gentle tide to take the deceased out to watery graves.
In the following days, an eerie emptiness and the stench of more decaying human bodies, fish, and other animals rotting in the rubble left an unimaginable pal over the bewildered survivors. For all practical purposes, the Vidor’s island had washed away. The tale of death, devastation, and eventual recovery remained close to the hearts of King and his family. By the grace of God, they had survived the storm only to face the challenge of rebuilding their lives.
For many months, King was unable to walk the sandy shores without being reminded of the tragic cataclysm, horror, and anguish of those fatal hours. In the years that followed, he grew up hearing endlessly repeated stories of survival and loss. Tides, waves, wind, and the struggle of man warring against nature sank deep into the boy’s mind, and their rhythms set root to become the overriding themes that drove his imagination for the rest of his life.
He remembered a cathartic moment when he was ten years old and stood at the end of a pier waiting for his first swimming lesson. “A short distance off in the bay, a diving platform floated on the calm water,” he remembered in his memoirs. “Boys of all ages were crawling aboard, testing their courage by jumping or diving from the three levels. The larger boys, diving in graceful form from the top, seemed to float down. The smaller boys scrambled out of the water and immediately hurled themselves from the lowest raft feet first, head first, frontward, backward, sideways, suggesting a pizzicato movement in contrast to the waltz- like grace of the highest divers. Those in-between on the five-foot board created a broken tempo or syncopation which blended with the other two: one boy would raise his hand in preparation for a dive, change his mind, grab his nose instead, and finish with a jump; another would mount the platform, take a look, decide it was too high, and return with a grotesque crawl to the deck below. I saw in the scene music reduced to movement; I felt its rhythm, tempo, beauty, humor; I was aware of form and composition, of line and action. I wanted to record it, to show others what had been shown to me; there must be some way of capturing and preserving what I saw and felt. I would think about it.”
He was born to document the beat, pace, tempo, and cadence of life, and his destiny converged quickly with the invention of the motion picture camera. He had not yet seen a motion picture, but that youthful ignorance changed five years later, when he saw his first film, George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. King sought work at The Globe, the first movie theater in Galveston, which operated out of a music store on Market Street. He worked twelve hours a day as the ticket taker for $3.50 per week. He also learned to operate the film projector. In the quiet and dark room beside the slowly turning reels, he studied French comedian Max Linder.
“I learned much about pantomime from Max as I sat there in the dark,” he recalled in his autobiography, “ I absorbed all the clichés of French pantomime . . . it was a wonderful world.”
When an Italian, two-reel version of Ben-Hur was imported and shown, King studied it twenty-one times each day, or a total of 147 times during the week’s run. He concentrated on the actor’s pantomime, and he studied their facial expressions. He dissected their thoughts and their body language. “This course in pantomime made a pleasant game out of what could have been a boring occupation, and later proved useful,” he later revealed.
When King’s friend, Roy Clough, constructed a working moving picture camera, history repeated itself with yet another tropical hurricane bearing down upon fragile Galveston Island. He and Roy arrived at the beach during sixty-mile per hour winds, carrying their homemade camera and anticipating the chance no one got when the 1900 hurricane tore through: they hoped to record on film the devastation as it occurred. Dodging flying shingles, shutters, and tree branches, they set their equipment up on a point well back of the sea wall and filmed the sea’s lashing fury, gigantic waves, crashing bathhouses, and other dramatic moments of nature caught in the wrath of the winds.
The film was developed, printed, and successfully circulated throughout Texas. With his filmmaking fever at a high pitch, King rebelled against continuing his formal education, and looked to the future with a determination to find a place in the world with that miraculous machine.
King Vidor, The Director, had emerged.
Part Two: The Producer
11,000 US Army troops converged on Galveston Island to quell trouble brewing in Vera Cruz, Mexico; the largest concentration of troops in American history. At the age of eighteen, King watched in amazement, as horse-drawn caissons and mule-drawn army trucks rumbled past his doorstep. Once again, the themes of war, aesthetic movement, and the measured tempo of men battling against all odds to persevere fired his imagination and affected his ambitions. King bought two 100-foot rolls of motion picture film, but he had no camera. A tip from the film supplier that one man in Houston owned a camera sent King scrambling. He took a train to Houston, and then searched every camera equipment dealer in town for a clue to the whereabouts of the man. He learned that his name was John Boggs and that he was a chauffeur to one of Houston’s important families. King persuaded John to partner with him and collaborate on assignments for Mutual Weekly, a producer of motion picture news documentaries.
They conspired to film the big parade of troops leaving Galveston Island. King’s mother became friendly with the officer’s wives, and by giving a bridge luncheon, she learned secret information about the army’s movements. Her devious maneuverings helped King and John plot a scheme for recording the momentous event with their hand-cranked motion picture camera.
The night before the soldiers were ready to march, John abruptly aborted their mission so he could entertain family members at a picnic, a fact King learned by discovering a short note pinned to the front door of his home. Fortunately, John had left the camera at a nearby drugstore for King to use; unfortunately, King had never operated the camera. He spent the night in desperate study to learn the correct rate of speed at which to turn the crank. His hopes for a future in filmmaking were weighing in the balance, and there would be no chance for retakes once the soldiers started to march.
King, with assistance from his uncle Bill, set up their precious, single camera on top of a nearby cotton warehouse, where they could aim the lens at a picturesque composition of a long road dipping gently down into a valley and up again on the other side, a perfect vantage point from which to record the 11,000 men marching over a five-mile expanse.
As the sound of the army’s band blared, the column began to move, and King nervously turned the crank two times per second just like he had practiced.
Suddenly, the camera jammed.
Unexposed film caught stubbornly within the inner movement of the camera; while the big parade of soldiers marched by.
“If we only had a changing-bag or a darkroom!” he told his uncle, but there was no such place in sight. Remembering the cotton bales in the rooms below, they raced to stack bales into a makeshift hovel that blocked out the morning light. There, huddled on his knees in the dark, King threw open the camera, tore out the jammed film, and rethreaded the remains of the roll. He raced again to the rooftop, slung the camera again onto the tripod, and began to crank, capturing an entire roll of footage of the distant marching men. Remembering the lessons he had learned studying so many films in his boyhood theater, King jumped into their Model T and they sped down into the valley, where they could shoot closer views of the moving column.
By the end of the day, all his exposed negatives were sent to Mutual Weekly, and the documentary film was successfully exhibited throughout the world.
King Vidor, The Producer, had emerged.
Part Three: The Innovator
With their first success, John Boggs quit as a chauffeur, and he and King rented a Houston office, bought laboratory equipment, and wrote a scenario for their first two-reel fiction film, In Tow. The story about automobile racing had all the ingredients they thought would spell success: a racing driver, a pretty girl, a comedy character, and an actual racing spectacle that was to be staged at a seaside grandstand with hundreds of free extras cheering the race. All they needed was a pretty girl to play the feminine lead, and they found her when they caught a fleeting glimpse of Florence Arto passing by in the seat of a Scanlon Mercer. He checked the local dealerships to find out who owned such a vehicle, and after tracking down her home address, they approached her about appearing in their film. Florence enthusiastically agreed to take part, but when her father learned of their scheme, he was outraged and forbad King to ever enter their home again. King had to find a new heroine, but he didn’t forget Florence.
With a borrowed Buick, he stepped into the leading role, cameras cranked, and shot by shot, they managed to photograph the scenes. When the motor fell out of their Buick, they towed it with a rope, but failed to set the camera close enough to crop out the rope. When expected crowds failed to show up for the race, they gathered twenty friends in a group in the grandstands, but they failed to position the camera close enough to crop out the empty seats around them. King gave his best impersonation of a race car driver and yelled at John to crank at half speed, but his cameraman mistook the order and cranked double speed during the race. Once they finished photography and film was developed and assembled with titles, he gathered family and friends for a screening in an empty theater.
They were horrified by what they saw.
“The first showing was a shock, to say the least,” he remembered in his autobiography. “The comedian’s attempt to disguise his extreme youth by stippling on a beard with a blue pencil had completely failed. We closed our eyes to the empty spaces surrounding the tight group in the grandstand. We tried to tell ourselves that the unbelievably slow pace of the racing cars was done purposely. We discovered that instead of stopping down the lens diaphragm in the bright glare of beach, water, and sky, my partner at the camera had reversed himself and opened the lens . . . the resultant overexposure caused sand, sea, and sky to merge in a white glare.”
Despite the setback, the novel lure of the movies had entrenched itself firmly in King’s mind. In Tow made the rounds of Houston and Galveston movie theaters, while King plotted how to expand their little business into genuine competition with the other filmmakers actively advancing the new medium beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Around 1913, D. W. Griffith, as well as many others, had firmly worked out the full grammar of motion pictures, and King faced formidable rivalry during those pre-World War One years.
King Vidor, The Innovator, had entered the competition.
Part Four: The Master
After making several more short films featuring Florence, the young couple married. King borrowed money and drove to Hollywood in a Model T, in which they also slept. He obtained a modest distribution deal and made some Ford Motor Company exploitation films along the way, but crossing Texas in those days meant feeling every jolt of every rut and every rock in the roads. Sleeping at night out in the wild Texas prairie brought its own difficulties.
“So anxious were we at first to roll off as many miles as possible each day that we kept driving well after darkness, and depended on choosing our camp site by the beams of two acetylene headlamps. On awakening the following morning, daylight would reveal that we had set up camp near the edge of a cliff or directly across the path of a herd of inquisitive cows.”
Florence and King endured attacks by criminals, tire blowouts, and every conceivable road worry, until they finally arrived in San Francisco, California, with only 20¢ to their names. They managed to make the final leg of the trip to Los Angeles and after meeting up with old friend and actress Corinne Griffith, Florence obtained work at the Vitagraph Studios and King tried to sell them stories. He wrote fifty-two scenarios before the first one sold for $30.
When Vitagraph outgrew their small lot, the company moved to Hollywood, and Florence, Corinne, and King went with them. They also found work with Thomas H. Ince. Exciting developments were taking place within the film community.
“My first home in Hollywood was in a boardinghouse just around the corner from Griffith’s amazing Intolerance set,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The setting was a reproduction of a Babylonian square surrounded by palaces and walls projecting upward to great heights. On top of these were runways wide enough for chariots drawn by four horses abreast to race along and space for hundreds of extras to participate in thrilling scenes.”
King made friends with the head watchman, and he idled away several Sundays examining the detail of the set. When actual filming took place, he spent many hours watching D. W. Griffith work.
King found employment at Universal as a clerk at $12 per week. In those days, men were given directing assignments on pure bluff. King soon found work with a unit making a Western serial. When he was ready to move on to the ranks of a full-fledged feature-film director, he edited several two-reel films together and assembled a six-reel feature. The pasted-up film sold, and King was on his way.
For $100 a week, he directed a film of a Christian Science story, The Turn of the Road. When released, the picture eventually grossed over $365,000, and brought him to the attention of everyone in the industry. “From the moment the film opened in Los Angeles, my telephone rang almost constantly,” he remembered. Dustin Farnum, Clara Kimball Young, and even Mary Pickford, huge stars at the time, reached out to him for help with their films.
Many successes followed, and King built his own studio, where he made The Jack-Knife Man, The Family Honor, and The Sky Pilot, as well as produced films starring Florence Vidor.
King Vidor, The Master, had arrived.
Part Five: The Star Maker
King wrote in his autobiography, “I soon landed a job at the old Metro studio on Romaine Street” the assignment: to direct stage veteran Laurette Taylor in Peg O’ My Heart.
“Although I had never seen Miss Taylor, her name carried with it a certain magic to my young ears,” King remembered. “She had toured England and the United States in this play for five years. Peg O’ My Heart had been written especially for her by J. Hartley Manners, her husband. Her undeniable success in the theater had caused her to refuse persistently to succumb to the new medium of movies.”
Nearly every major actress in Hollywood coveted the Peg role, and even Mary Pickford had offered a sum of money reported to be higher than any amount ever paid for screen rights to a play. Laurette and her husband steadfastly turned down all offers, reserving the play for if and when Laurette should ever decide to appear in a motion picture. Finally, Laurette decided to take the gamble, and they signed a contract with Metro to produce the picture.
King received the directorial assignment, but when he was given a copy of the play, he was dismayed to find that all the action took place on a single set. He could not envision how the dialogue could be translated into a silent motion picture. To make matters worse, a screen test of Laurette Taylor that was filmed in New York by Billy Bitzer, the head cameraman for D. W. Griffith, was appallingly bad and made Miss Taylor look seventy years old. Peg was certainly no more than eighteen years old, and the character did not age any during the course of the story. King was so disappointed that he was tempted to abort the whole project. Unfortunately for him, the star and her husband were due to arrive in California within days to begin consulting on the production. He had no choice but to wait and meet the actress in person before finalizing his judgment. He hoped the actress would be better in person than she had appeared on the crude screen test.
“I was met at the hotel by a charming, vivacious woman with sparkling eyes, who simply oozed personality from her entire being,” the surprised King revealed. Soon after their arrival, the star and her husband read the play to him, emphasizing the moments of high spirits and hilarity that had proven so effective with live audiences. King began to see that much of the dialogue could find a substitute in pantomime, and much of the talk about action outside of the single setting could be shown rather than verbally described. As the play was read to him, he realized the possibilities of a cinematic treatment, and became anxious to film a new test of Laurette. Remembering the beauty of certain still photographs of another actress of a similar age, images accomplished with the use of a flattering portrait lens, he devised a plan to film a test on motion picture film that was made on a camera fitted with that lens. The results were astonishing.
Another age-reducing gadget, a spotlight beamed from slightly higher than the camera and aimed through a rifle sight, focused a circle of light on the actress’s face, burning out some of the lines around her eyes and firming a sharp jaw and chin shadow. When the tests were projected, Laurette looked sixteen instead of forty.
“Another trick I employed with great effectiveness in all medium and long shots where we could not use the still-camera lens was to play some joke or prank just before each ‘take’ to get Laurette in a laughing mood,” King revealed. “Then, without warning, we could start the camera. When she would hear the grinding of the camera, she would start acting the already rehearsed scene, but the playful and youthful expression would remain until the scene had ended.”
Filming began with a scene to be taken on a very hot location near Sherwood Lake. A house had been erected days before to appear as Peg’s cottage on the location, and wild geese and goats were lodged the previous night within the makeshift structure. King planned for the set to double as Laurette’s dressing room in the wilds, a little Irish hut overlooking the lake.
Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, interviewing the director, King Vidor, quoted him remembering, “We got out to the location together that morning. Hartley was wearing his white shoes and Laurette brought her maid and her dog along. We had to climb a very steep, dusty trail to the top of the hill where the house was. She damn near quit the film while climbing the hill, slipping and sliding in the dust. The usual Hollywood cast never thought anything about the hardships on location.”
Bright tin reflectors surrounded the exterior where the camera was set up. Hot, searing sunlight blasted from them onto Laurette as she posed for the camera. One of the actors, deviating from the script, said some flippant line instead of what he had been rehearsed to say, and Laurette, thrown by the transgression, flashed anger at his mistake, as well as the blinding reflectors.
“The actor must speak the proper lines, or I can’t go on!” Laurette wailed.
King instructed the actor to say the proper lines. He also warned Laurette to stay within the chalk marks by her feet, and then he yelled, “Action! Camera!”
Laurette stared at him dumbfounded. “If you think I’m going to turn on my emotions whenever you say so, like a hot and cold water faucet while standing on a space allotted to me no bigger than a dollar bill, you are mad, stark, staring mad!”
King recalled, “I was enough of a lip reader to understand the vile epithets she snarled to herself as she began to do the scene again.”
To eradicate her age, a battery of shining tin reflectors concentrated sunlight on the small area on which Laurette stood, increasing the summer sun a dozen times. Within minutes, her anger and the stifling heat caused her to faint. The horrified crew carried her unconscious into the house, which had been used to store all the goats and geese that had been procured for the exterior scene. No one had expected the house to become a makeshift first aid station. When she came to, she was flabbergasted by the outrageous, unplanned pandemonium of animals bounding every which way.
“It’s impossible. I’ll never be able to do it!” she screamed. She rushed out the door and down the hill with her maid, and Michael, the dog, trailed faithfully behind.
That night, they affectionately made up over cocktails. The following day, King implored the cast and crew to stay to the letter of the rehearsed script, and the production ran smoothly from then on. King recalled that the making of the film was “one of the happiest and most satisfying experiences of my career.”
The filmed play turned out beautifully. King’s finished work was not a distinctly cinematographic piece. He wisely opened up the story to other settings when possible, going to the extent of showing story elements that were merely described in the spoken play. Laurette’s pantomime was an extra treat for those who were seeing her for the first time. Her performance, due largely to King’s direction, was polished and in keeping with the techniques common among experienced film performers.
Photoplay, February, 1923, noted . . . “on the whole, Director King Vidor and his scenarist, Mary O’Hara, have done a very satisfying job with the popular play, never deviating in any essential particular from J. Hartley Manners’ original footlight thesis . . . It is workmanlike and sincere. Somehow, we can’t understand why Vidor has been in eclipse recently. Surely no one had a more human touch in his direction. But the ways of motion picture business are many and varied.”
Film Daily, December 17, 1922, said . . . “both Miss Taylor, and King Vidor, who directed, have fulfilled the hopes of those who have been waiting to see Peg O’ My Heart in pictures . . . King Vidor has handled the production very well and the material has been used to good advantage and with good judgment. The exterior shots are very pretty and production values in general are first rate . . . the director has brought out the humor of the story in splendid style and it is always wholesome. Added to his efforts are some fine titles that fit the pictures very well.”
King Vidor, The Star Maker, had developed.
Part Six: The Money Maker
Once King achieved success, he moved from Metro to Goldwyn, where he directed Three Wise Fools, Wild Oranges, and His Hour. When they combined forces with Louis B. Mayer and renamed the organization MGM, opportunities abounded to work with other top stars, such as John Gilbert in Bardelys, the Magnificent. King grew in stature and expertise as a director. “I learned that in long shots, it is the scenery and broad action that predominates, and in the close shots, it is the acting that holds the attention,” he said in his autobiography.
Irving Thalberg, in charge of production at MGM, called him in to discuss his next project, asking if King had any ideas. “I would like to make a film about any one of three subjects: steel, wheat, or war,” he replied.
They chose war, and King specifically asked to direct a story about a soldier who was “. . . neither over-patriotic nor a pacifist, but who went to war and reacted normally to all the things that happened to him.” A week later, Thalberg brought Laurence Stallings, author of the hit play, What Price Glory? to create a new story. Stallings brought a five-page synopsis on onionskin paper titled, The Big Parade. Stallings refused to settle into a studio cubicle and grind out a scenario, so he returned to New York. King hired a young writer named Harry Behn to go with him and Stallings on the train to the east coast, and they kept him talking about The Big Parade while they recorded copious notes. Then, they returned to California and composed a complete scenario. King reviewed almost a hundred reels of documentary film made during World War One to familiarize himself with all types of combat in Europe, and he was struck by one particular bit of footage that showed a company of men passing the camera at a cadence decidedly different from the usual ones, a rhythm that suggested an ominous event, a forewarning of death. Only after noticing the weird walk did a flag-draped coffin come into view atop a horse-drawn caisson of a funeral cortege.
“The thought struck me that if I could duplicate this slow, measured cadence as my American troops approached the front line, I could illustrate the proximity of death with a telling and powerful effect,” he remembered years later. He then conceived an innovative plan to repeat the real march for his film. King took a metronome and a drummer out onto Belleau Wood and forced marching soldiers to step to the beat, as if they were advancing in a ballet of death.
Irving Thalberg was so impressed with the director’s first cut that he encouraged him to go back into production at great additional expense and expand the battle scenes. Everyone agreed that King had a masterwork in the making, and their solid commitment to his efforts was to ensure that they maximum potential of the production was achieved.
Thalberg also had asked for the film to be tightened. “When the film was first shown in New York, it was 12,800-feet in length,” he stated years later. “In the editing process, we had pared the action to the bone.” Nevertheless, the film still ran nearly ten minutes too long, not enough to damage audience enjoyment, but enough to cause trouble for commuters trying to make their way to train departures. King was asked to eliminate another 800 feet, nearly an entire reel. He cut six frames from the beginning and the end at each splice on all of the thousands of splices in the original negative. Once finished, the film was shorter, but it was still 165 feet overlong, so he went back and cut one more frame from each side of the splices. The end result was that just about 800-feet exactly had been removed. The Big Parade then ran at the proper length.
The production cost $245,000. When the finished film was first shown at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, King asked the orchestra to stop their musical accompaniment at the beginning of that sequence and keep silent until it was finished. With the orchestra suddenly halted, the slow, measured cadences of the soldiers in the film became readily discernible, and the moment became one of the most haunting for audiences viewing the memorable story for the first time.
The Big Parade (1925) set a precedent for World War One films in the 1920s as The Birth of a Nation (1915) had set a precedent for Civil War films in the 1910s. The Big Parade was the first big box-office success of the newly-formed MGM Studios, and its accumulated grosses added up to make the film the most profitable up to that time, The Birth of a Nation, which had never enjoyed clear-cut accounting during its long years of worldwide release, being the only probably exception. The Big Parade earned more than $15 million dollars over the first several years of its release.
King Vidor, The Money Maker, had struck gold.
Part Seven: The Interview
If King Vidor’s The Big Parade can be pinpointed as the climax of his compositions, then his later productions were the culmination of his capabilities: La Bohème, The Crowd, The Patsy, and Show People, proved that he had mastered the film form as an art, but the end of the silent era brought the fluid art of film nearly to an end, nearly because the chaos that followed in the wake of the industry’s conversion to talking pictures threw many studios into a tailspin. Sound stumped some silent film actors and directors, but King went headlong into Hallelujah, filming largely without recording equipment.
“The difficulty of matching sound tracks recorded in the studio with scenes made on location in Tennessee proved almost insurmountable,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Negro sermons and baptisms were photographed without benefit of sound equipment. Later, in the studio, a wild recording was made. Then, the editor went to work, and through the most tedious and maddening process, tried to fit the two together.”
To supply sound to the finished film, King created big puddles of water and mud, and sent the actors tramping through them with a microphone while a sound truck recorded the effect. In the studio, actors went through all their talking and singing a second time, painstakingly synchronizing their sounds to the film image.
In the following years, Bird of Paradise, Street Scene, Cynara, Wedding Night, and Stella Dallas were largely made inside studios, but Our Daily Bread again took King outside to delve into explored aspects of filmmaking.
He experimented with color for the first time with Northwest Passage, created a super-Western with Duel in the Sun, stirred controversy with The Fountainhead. In the 1950s, King helped develop film for television and wide-screen productions for theaters.
On August 4, 1975, King was interviewed by Ronald L. Davis, and the following are excerpts from his recollections that were taped at his studio in Beverly Hills, California:
RONALD: Mr. Vidor, could we start with your telling us something about your boyhood in Galveston?
KING: Well, that’s a long story. I was born just the same year that movies were practically invented. When I was coming into my teens, just the idea of movies was a novelty. I was like a kid growing up today wanting to be an astronaut. Just to have a movie that moved was something, whether it might be a picture of Niagara Falls, travelogues, or short things. People came to the opera house because they didn’t have any movie theaters. So, it immediately fascinated me, and I began to think in terms of movement, interesting movement.
Eventually, they built nickelodeons, which was a store with some curtains and a box office at a counter. The one I have in mind was a music store. They just cleaned out the back half of the store, and put curtains and “Entrance” and “Exit” up there, chairs, a piano player, and a screen. It was a movie theater. I got a job there taking up tickets that were sold at the music counter. Somebody might have to wait to buy a guitar, or something, and then they’d buy the tickets from the same guy, and I’d take them up inside the theater. The show was probably half an hour long; and I saw it over and over sitting in the dark all day from 10:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night. I got 50¢ a day. In seven days, I earned $3.50. One of the films was Ben-Hur.
I was working with the movies. In this first job, when the projectionist would go to lunch, or when somebody went to get a beer, I would go up and run the projection machine. It was very dangerous. It was all nitrate film, and explosive. There was just a hole in the bottom of the booth to escape out of.
Then, I ran across a fella who was building a camera out of a projection machine and cigar boxes. I got in with him, and we went out and worked together on the camera. They had a Galveston storm; we went out and photographed that storm. I was completely bitten by the bug by then. As crude as it was, it was shown, and it was quite spectacular. There was a tremendous storm, and no other cameras had been there.
I had some other jobs, but I never gave up the idea, even when I headed for the University of Texas. I also went to Peacock Military School in San Antonio. I was always busy making movies, always had the movie making thing in the back of my mind. I met up with a fellow in Houston who had a camera. He was a chauffeur for a family, and we were supposed to go out and photograph a line of 11,000 troops marching from Galveston to Houston, the biggest movement in United States history at that time. He couldn’t go, so he left instructions with me about how to operate the camera. I went up with a friend of mine to sit on top of a building, and we photographed that line of troops.
(King Vidor and two friends journeyed by overnight boat to San Francisco, and once there, they determined to join the vagabond filmmaker then making their first productions under the year-round California sun).
KING: We had practically no money at all, and when I say no money, I mean we arrived in San Francisco with 20¢ between the three of us.
RONALD: Did you work for a while as an extra?
KING: I did anything. In those days, you could go to every department. There were no unions or guilds. I’d go from Universal studios casting department, get a job as a bit actor, go to the extra department, go to the prop department, prop man, assistant cameraman, I’d done all these jobs, so I’d just go around from one department to the other. I spent all day at one studio going from one place to the other looking for jobs, and finally, I got on at Universal for $12.50 a week as a company clerk. That gave me the chance to be on the set with the director and with the picture being made. I was supposed to keep the expense money, which was cash out of pocket, $25 a day. I hardly got anything for that. I got a job for a few days as a cameraman with Judge Willis Brown. I still had an old camera from Texas. I did some bits in pictures. I think I sold a story for $30. Judge Willis Brown was a juvenile court Judge, and he had a way of treating boys, something like Boy’s Town, and when he finally made a series of pictures using my initiative with the camera, I got the job as director.
RONALD: You made a film with Laurette Taylor, Peg O’ My Heart. Was this simply a filming of her stage presentation?
KING: Pretty much, yes. That was my first experience of adapting. See, up until then, we’d always written everything for the silent screen. The first four, full-length pictures I made, didn’t have any budget for buying a story. You were just expected to supply the story, the script, and everything. So, to adapt a stage play was a new experience, and to adapt it with somebody who’d been playing it on the stage . . . and her husband had written it . . . this was something new. It had been a success, and I didn’t want to change it. The big problem was that she was about forty-five years old, and she was playing about an eighteen-year-old girl, which she could get away with on the stage, but when it came to the pictures, well, it was a different matter. We had to do all kinds of trick photography, distorted lenses, and lighting, but she finally looked about sixteen years old, and it was a miracle. A stage play is all lines you know; lines, lines, lines. We were so imbued with the technique of silent film, that to take a thing that was all talk and turn that into action was something else. Oh, it was a good experience for me . . . She just used to run it almost every night for her friends. I didn’t think too much of the picture even then or now, except for this great magic that we did on her in photography. I made another picture with her called Happiness, and in that, she was playing a young woman. All her comedic possibilities came out, and that looks quite good today, and has a lot of humor and everything.
RONALD: I’ve often been curious about Zukor’s Famous Players. I know there were attempts, I guess DeMille used opera singers like Geraldine Farrar, and I’ve often wondered why in the world that would be done in silent pictures.
KING: They were going after the top names then, you know. Famous Players was called Famous Players-Lasky. There were no famous motion picture stars. There were a few like Lillian Gish, or somebody, but they were with Griffith. Mary Pickford has her own company, developed when she worked for Zukor, so this thing was called “Famous Players in Famous Plays.” They took Dustin Farnum, William Farnum, all from the theater. They thought there’s where the great actors were. Geraldine Farrar, the opera singer, they put her in Carmen. I guess the public was impressed that they could see the same woman and didn’t have to go to New York to see her in person.
RONALD: Do you think this was also an attempt to elevate the prestige of movies?
KING: Yes, yes. These fellas were quite ambitious, Zukor, Goldwyn, and Lasky. They wanted to get out of the cheap slapstick variety and the cheap Western variety. DeMille and his brother, William, came from the theater, and they wanted to lift the thing up in class. Costs began to go up, and box office take began to go up, too. It then became a dime, and then became a quarter.
RONALD: It was The Big Parade that really established you as a director of talent.
KING: Yes, My first full-length picture was called Turn in the Road. It ran for eleven weeks in downtown Los Angeles. After that picture was shown, I got job offers from every company, but I hadn’t yet moved into the top line of directors until The Big Parade. Pictures used to come to town and play a week and that was it. Gone. You’d think, My god, I worked a long time on this thing and put a lot of effort in it, and it comes for one week, and it’s forgotten. We didn’t even get copies for our own use. It seemed like a very quick finish. So, I went to Irving Thalberg and said I wanted to make a picture that played a long time in the theater, that came and stayed, and that’s how he said, “Well, you got any ideas.” I said, “War, wheat, or steel.” Those were the ideas I had. So, we started looking for war stories. He went to New York and signed up What Price Glory? He signed Laurence Stallings, and Stallings knocked out five pages of this story, and that was practically all he ever wrote on it. From that, another fella and I wrote the script. When it came out, it put MGM on the map and played a year and a half at one theater in New York to standing room only the whole time. After that, I could sort of call my own shots. That’s how I got to make some pictures that are still running, like Hallelujah, the first all-black film, and The Crowd, Daily Bread, and so forth, because I had a big standing at the time. I could do unusual films.
RONALD: Already in The Big Parade, there are those visual images which you’ve become famous for.
KING: I’m glad to hear it. If I make another picture, I’ll try to remember to get some in.
RONALD: I’m fascinated with your idea of the metaphor in film. I’ve read some interviews that you’ve done previously and I’m very interested. How did this come about?
KING: I really think that metaphors come about just as an outgrowth of the individuality. I don’t think you sit down and figure out, “I want to say one thing, but I’ll say it in a different way.” I don’t think those are entirely conscious. I think it’s just that your own individuality and your own character rubs off on the things you do if you are expressing yourself as an individual, or as an artist. Then, it just gets into your work; it gets into the actors you use; it gets into the stories you pick and the scripts you write. I have done a lot of writing. The metaphor is discovered later on, when you become a student of that film.
KING: You discover things in the image you didn’t really know were there, sometimes. I think if you sit down and say, “Now, I’m going to make this into a metaphoric meaning,” probably you could see the wheels go round and it wouldn’t come off. Particularly in silent films, you have a feeling for what you’d like to say, and so you do the best you can with pantomime and image, to get over what you’re feeling and what you’re saying. Particularly in silent films, it makes the films much more interesting for students of today to figure out all these things that got into silent language. I’m very much conscious of silent music.
KING: That was done very consciously. I think I’m one of the inaugurators of that, influenced by Griffith, but I don’t think Griffith ever figured it out quite as mathematically as I did. I think he developed it.
RONALD: You’re speaking now of the rhythm of a scene.
KING: Yeah, the rhythm, getting musical feelings into silent stuff. Griffith had these operatic themes for different characters. I worked on that idea for musical climaxes. I used to do a lot of my writing while listening to symphony orchestras.
RONALD: Is that right?
KING: Yeah, in theaters, not necessarily with records. Some of it was with records, but a lot of it was going to symphony concerts. So, I always developed and used and experimented a lot with this. I used to call it “silent music technique.” In The Big Parade, even before I started that idea of using a metronome, developing, increasing speeds and all that sort of stuff. I started using that technique with a picture called Three Wise Fools made at the Goldwyn company that became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. By the time of The Big Parade, I was using a metronome and a bass drum and putting orchestra men, who had experience as musicians in charge of the forty soldiers, to keep them moving in the rhythm and in the tempo of the metronome beat. They didn’t have loudspeakers. We were doing it with bass drum and a metronome sounding the bass drum so everybody could hear it. I did a lot of that. I never heard of anyone else doing it.
RONALD: You actually made notes on the script for the beat.
KING: Yeah, of the metronome beat. Used it again on Our Daily Bread, and very much designing what beat it was and how it would increase, and doing things in counts, you know.
RONALD: Did this mean that you worked very closely with the choreographer, or were you your own choreographer?
KING: I was my own choreographer. Oh, I have had Busby Berkeley on a picture to help staging a dance number “Bird of Paradise” or maybe a square dance number, or something, but for a thing like Our Daily Bread, digging the ditch, I did that all on my own. To prove that we did it for economic reasons, we let sound recording go. We just dismissed it, but we didn’t need the sound recording. We put that in later, you know, when the music was done, as a silent picture, and put the sound in later.
RONALD: Is your feeling that silent films were perhaps a more poetic medium?
KING: Definitely. It was a rather sad day when we realized they were going to take over. They were more aesthetic, and they were more poetic, and they were more of an art, as it were. We developed a technique of pantomime that wasn’t like Marcel Marceau, but a more subtle sort of pantomime, and a subtle way of photography and thinking and emotions that was becoming absolutely articulate. We just didn’t feel that anything was missing. That’s the meaning of art when you can say a lot with simple lines, and with very simple movements, and very simple gestures. That’s the whole meaning of art; let the audience do a lot of work, too, in figuring it out or imagining. I remember very distinctly that young people used to be glued to the screen. You couldn’t turn away. They didn’t have popcorn or lovemaking in theaters so much. If you wanted to see the film, you had to be glued to the screen to not miss anything. When sound came on, you could turn away, eat popcorn, look in the bag, and you’d hear it. You’d hear what was going on in your ear. You wouldn’t miss anything because it was two ways: it was looking and listening. So, we felt very badly about this. You see, before, people could adapt silent film to their own life, their own intelligence, their own level of sensual sensation even different languages. Films shown all over the world could adapt into whatever language, whatever country. Suddenly, we realized it was going to now be specific words. Sound caused the demise of fellas like John Gilbert, and Corinne Griffith, particularly in the case of Gilbert. Sound would have caused the finish of Valentino. They were intense lovers, Gilbert, particularly. I made five films with him, and he was very intense, and he said things like, “I adore you. I worship you. Wait until I get you in bed tonight and what I’m going to do to you,” and the audience would wonder what he was saying, and they’d fit their own words to it. Suddenly, he had to speak, and he had to say, “I love you, darling,” and so forth, and it became funny. It became laughable. The legend is that he had a high voice, but it was because of the words. If you put ‘”I love you. I adore you” in today, they’ll laugh.
RONALD: You’ve said you were influenced by Griffith. Were you not also influenced by the German Expressionists?
KING: Yes, definitely. In particular, about the time I was making The Crowd, and just before that. Variety, The Last Laugh, Metropolis, all came out about six months to a year before I started working on The Crowd. Thus, the perambulator boom shots, forced perspective, and so forth, probably without me totally knowing and being aware of those things, were big influences. I was influenced by the German films.
RONALD: I read that in The Crowd, you recreated some scenes right out of your Texas childhood, specifically the scene of the boy going up the stairs.
KING: I was back in Galveston and met a guy that was rebuilding the house where I was born, trying to preserve it, and I walked upstairs and I looked back down, and there was the shot right out of The Crowd. I’d seen this scene first in my own home. You don’t know. It gets in the unconscious, but there it was. I had a fella take a picture of it. It must have rung a bell with me. There’s a young boy going up that stairs to face maturity, I guess.
RONALD: Yes. His father has just died.
KING: Hallelujah, with all the blacks, that’s just a complete thing of my Texas and Arkansas childhood. All of it; I mean, the whole damn picture. Baptisms, and the river, and sawmills, and religious meetings, and shoutings, the whole thing, the rows of houses. And you’re just calling upon your semiconscious all the time to fill in all these things. Even the script of Hallelujah was written just by listing all my memories of childhood. They made a big impression on me at the time.
RONALD: Hallelujah was your first sound film, right?
KING: Yeah, and we made it around Memphis, Tennessee, and in Arkansas. It’s a sound film, but we didn’t have portable sound equipment, so we were doing it as a silent. I mean, as a sound film, but with silent cameras, no sound recording equipment. So, therefore, it has a lot of movement and a lot of images in it that maybe we wouldn’t have done if we had sound equipment.
RONALD: Did you feel hemmed in once sound pretty much became established?
KING: I somehow escaped it. I said Hallelujah was planned to go on location in the South and we went ahead and shot it on location. By the time it was finished, I could see what could be done, that you could ignore some of those restrictions they had at MGM: buying stage plays, shooting them as stage plays, and I was going ahead doing action, still, you know, because I’d luckily had this experience with Hallelujah. It was only when sound came that I was able to persuade them. Also by putting in my own money with theirs, putting in my salary, I escaped some of the very early restrictions of sound.
RONALD: Our Daily Bread is another film that you’ve mentioned, and this was an original story with you, wasn’t it?
KING: Yes. Yes. I read a page in Reader’s Digest where some professor from Duke University said the only solution to this Depression is for people to trade, to exchange their trades, exchange their crafts with other people and that cut out the money and the depression idea. I think we bought it for a few hundred dollars just to have the rights, but it was no story; it was just the idea of a cooperative commune that exchanged goods with each other, and that gave me the balance of the story. I couldn’t sell that story to any studio, even at MGM, where I’d made a lot of top films, even to Irving Thalberg. It was just too much of a Depression thing for them. They were into making glamorous, exciting films, and I couldn’t sell it, and I had to go out and raise the money myself. Most of it I put up myself, and put actors on deferment, and so forth. It was a picture that still runs today. It’s still running on television, and now and then, it’s still in colleges, you know. It’s still studied. It runs in Europe, on television, festivals, and so forth.
RONALD: The Texas Rangers. I wanted to talk to you about that since it was based on a book by Walter Prescott Webb.
KING: Yes. When I was a kid, my father used to come home telling about tales of the Texas Rangers. They had all these legends. One Ranger got off the train and asked, “Where is the riot?” They asked, “Where are the Texas Rangers?” He replied, “I’m a Texas Ranger.” “But there’s only one of you.” “Well, there’s only one riot, isn’t there?”
RONALD: That film was made in 1936. Was it consciously made for the Texas Centennial?
KING: No, no. I think we went there when it opened in Dallas. Lloyd Nolan, Fred MacMurray, and I went down there. I remember they tried to advertise it that way.
RONALD: Were you involved in the writing of that at all?
KING: Yes. I always am. It’s just a belief that I have in the way of making pictures. A conviction that it’s such a personal sort of thing that you can’t just say to somebody, “Write a script, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.” I’m involved in it by laying it out, discussing it, and rewriting. Directing, for me, starts off with the possible selection of the story and the writing of the script. By the time you get ready to start, you should have done about half your work, and then the making of the film, and then the editing. I’d say the actual shooting of the picture is about 50 percent of it; the rest is planning. In silent films, we used to handle the film our self in the editing room. I think the editing was probably more important. We could create more in the editing than with synchronized voice film because you’re tied down by those lines, you know.
RONALD: Let’s get another dimension in here, and that’s color. I know that you took up oil painting to learn to work with color better. Is this true?
KING: Yes. When sound came in, we hadn’t been thinking about dialogue, but we learned and started thinking in terms of words. The same thing occurred in color. We just thought in terms of black and white. There were all sorts of grays. It wasn’t really black. MGM had no such thing as black. It was dark grays, and shades of white, and they wouldn’t have anything white. Along came color, and I had to become color conscious, to use colors to enhance the drama, or enhance the effect that I was trying to achieve. We weren’t trained in this. John Marquand, the novelist, gave me a set of paints, and I heard phrases like “warm colors” and “cool colors.” I started painting. I didn’t take lessons. I bought paintings and knew a bit about it, and I think Diego Rivera said, “Just start painting.” So, I did that. The general studio ignorance started with, “I’m paying for color; I want color!” The first picture I made in color was Northwest Passage.
KING: Those Rangers wore green clothes so they’d fade into the background, disappear. They came out too green, and when I complained to the Technicolor Company, they said, “Well, that’s the green Zanuck likes.” They were emerald green, and it just foiled the thing we were trying for. And then, I realized that we didn’t want the pretty blue skies because of the hardships, swamps, and tragedy that a lot of the picture had in it. There we were filming pretty skies, pretty hills, and things. I realized we had to control those colors as we did everything else. It was quite an experience. We had to do all kinds of things to keep the colors from being too gaudy. Its okay for musicals, but not for drama.
RONALD: Didn’t music influence you the way paintings influenced you?
KING: Yes. Take The Crowd: I was playing Tchaikovsky’s symphony, “Pathétique,” all the way through . . . Painters have influenced my approach in photography and selection and, as they have said for years, Rembrandt-type lighting. We could also talk about how movies had affected the other artists. In the field of literature, I know that in the early years of my career, I was influenced by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain, and probably Ring Lardner. I wanted to be able to buy those stories and they didn’t have budget enough, and so I sorta wrote Booth Tarkington stories, you know? We even had an option on one, which I gave up. And I wrote a story once for Esquire, and I wrote it like Sherwood Anderson. I’m supposed to do a Sherwood Anderson picture in January called I Am a Fool. It’s not a full-length movie; it’s about forty-five minutes . . . for the Bicentennial.
RONALD: Oh, yes.
KING: They gave me a long list of films and I jumped on the Sherwood Anderson.
RONALD: Back on the music point for a moment. In your concern with rhythm and the silent music that you talked about, did this mean that in sound films that you worked closely with the composer doing the scoring for the film?
KING: Yes, because this is a natural evolution. The composer can ruin the purpose that you’re trying to achieve. He can ruin that by going against it. You see, silent films were never shown silent. Whenever we sent out a film for a sneak preview or showed it to anybody, we always showed it in some place where they had an organ, an orchestra, or a piano. We showed it with an organ or an orchestra if we could. We began to tie up the close relationship between film and music. I’ve seen silent scenes in sound pictures, and I’ve said, “How the heck did they ever keep that silent scene in there?” I often got a temporary music track and stuck it in, immediately after the first day’s showing, put in a temporary track. As recently as War and Peace and Solomon and Sheba, I worked very closely with the composer. In War and Peace, it was Nino Rota, who has done Fellini films, and I worked very closely with him on the musical scoring and on the set with the orchestra and everything, making changes with the orchestra and the conductor. In Solomon and Sheba, too, I threw out music. I came back to America and then went back, and I checked out some of the music that didn’t fit, or that I didn’t like, or that didn’t “lift” where it was supposed to be.
RONALD: For a director like yourself, with very real ideas, did you find the big studio system flexible enough to incorporate your ideas?
KING: Well, fortunately, MGM made a lot of films, fifty a year. And fortunately, The Big Parade was made early in the career of MGM.
KING: And that was such a surprise hit to them, and it made so much money for them, and costing so little, $245,000, and grossing $20 million or so.
KING: I had that power to do what I wanted, and if that had not been the case, I might not have had. So, Irving Thalberg said one time, which I remember, he said, “MGM can afford to experiment a little bit.” Even before that time, I was trying to make a more realistic type of film. I had one idea, and it goes back to the second year I was making full-length films. I walked this over with Andrew Wyeth, too. I wanted films to look real. See, films in the beginning, they didn’t look real. Their gestures were wild; the pantomime was wild; the make-up was impossible and unreal, and I wanted to make films look real. I didn’t want them to necessarily be real. I knew we were working with an illusion, but I wanted them to look real and not offend people’s credibility. I always thought it was active arrogance to look down and say the public couldn’t understand something . . . I found the public understands it better than the fellas in the studio.
RONALD: I know you feel strongly that a director should put his mark on a film.
KING: I think it’s what people look for and pay for.
KING: It’s Fellini doing his psychoanalysis on the screen. It’s interesting to him, and it’s interesting to other people. I look today for the directors who are going to do this, I haven’t followed all of Altman, but he seems to be doing it in a way. I only saw one of his films that was shot in the Astrodome. I thought it was awful, but he does seem to be establishing some sort of continuity between his films.
RONALD: What would you say is your special mark?
KING: I was more or less saying that when I was talking about I wanted films to look real, but not to be real.
RONALD: I see.
KING: And that gets into the metaphor. I have in The Big Parade, and I have in most of my pictures, scenes that are not based on the way it happened. In The Citadel, the experts in England said, “Nobody trying a law case in England gets up and walks around.” I said, “Well, in this law court, he is going to get up and walk around.” And you know, just throwing the English habit right out of the window, but it looked real. And many people don’t know that they don’t do that in England. And so, I didn’t care about them. There’s another thing I had from the beginning, and that is that I tried to get themes that were more universal, that tried to express the movement, or the feelings of a larger group of people than just one little incident between one man and one woman, or something, you know. I tried to have them go on universal themes. Whether I always succeeded, I don’t know. In the case of The Crowd, it’s very universal: one man representing the average man. In Hallelujah, it’s the thing of the black people at the time. In Our Daily Bread, it’s the Depression thing, which affected a group of people. It may be told by two or three people, but it’s more of a mass problem.
RONALD: I know you’ve said that, generally speaking, the greater the production costs, the less freedom there is to express one’s self. And yet, I think of a number of your films as being very big films: Duel in the Sun, War and Peace, and Solomon and Sheba.
KING: Well, yes. That’s true. That’s offset by the popularity of the famous War and Peace Tolstoy novel. Today, there’s not a lot of those films being made. They’re costly, and they’re not spectacle in a way. I think about A Clockwork Orange: some directors achieve individuality in spite of their big cost, and the cost seems to keep growing. It’s nothing today to say, $5 million or $6 million dollars. And probably, you get a lot of people that say, “We don’t want to lose $3 million on this; let’s make it universal. In the case of Fellini, he probably doesn’t spend any such great amounts, and they’ve learned to leave him alone. They should have let him alone right from the beginning, I think. You don’t want films to be made by committees.
RONALD: You don’t want education by committees, either. As I understand it, Duel in the Sun really started out to be a much smaller picture than it ended up to be.
KING: Yes, it did. David Selznick said, “I’m not going to interfere at all; I’m going to let you alone,” and I thought I was going to make an Academy Award-winning picture like High Noon, which I think came out later, but that type of intimate Western, intense, intimate thing, and, of course, when we got going, he was right in there trying to make another Gone With The Wind.
KING: A Western Gone With the Wind. He had us running Gone With the Wind several times, and so it got away from that. He was the writer and the producer, probably right from his standpoint . . . .
KING: . . . to make a big film out of it. It’s still making money, I guess.
RONALD: I know that you’ve said that Selznick’s one of the few producers in your experience that had a way of putting his personality on a film, and I’m wondering in a case like this if you had the Vidor stamp and the Selznick stamp going in different directions, If this was a difficult thing to work through.
KING: He wanted me for my imagery, I guess. Jennifer seemed to like me directing her. I did two pictures with her, and he wanted me for my capabilities. Selznick was always shooting big, putting great actors in small parts, and that complements what I lack. I’d just be liable to pick anybody up out of the extras to put him in a big part. I made that mistake in a picture called American Romance. He had a definite contribution to make, and he was also a writer and producer. He had a lot to give to a film. He knew enough about what was good and bad in moviemaking, too.
RONALD: There’s some beautiful things in that film.
RONALD: I still remember, for example, the scene with the sunset and the colors.
KING: That was an outgrowth of what I was telling you about with Northwest Passage.
RONALD: What was your method of helping actors find the character?
KING: That’s a good point and a good question. I used to have to say to myself, “Pay attention to the actors, now. It’s not all photography, and not all movement. Give the actors some time, too.” I know in the case of War and Peace, I knew the book so well and I started explaining it at length, what Pierce was supposed to be thinking, and why he was doing this, and so forth. When we were ready to shoot, Henry Fonda said, “I’ve been listening to you for one hour and I still don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” My job was to translate Tolstoy, put Tolstoy on the screen. In the case of Duel in the Sun and Jennifer Jones: the way to handle her was to tell her the whole story. I’d tell her the whole story every morning up to the point of the scene she was going to do, and I knew that was the only thing to do, and then, she would do the scene. Now, if I said to her, “Come on, do this scene, you read the script,” and she’s so nervous and so uncertain, funny things would happen to her mouth. I saw other pictures where she was treated like that, and her mouth would be twisted and turning and she looked like some other person. Today, they do it by having talk sessions the night before. I’ve done that too, sometimes.
RONALD: Were there frequent problems in getting a known screen personality to break away from the symbol, to fit into a dramatic character?
KING: With Laurette Taylor, I learned that lesson right from the beginning. With Peg O’ My Heart, I had visualized a completely different thing in working on the script, and then when I started to work with Laurette, I realized that would be a mistake to mold her into an idea I had. She would have done a bad job. She’d been on the stage with that role. She’d exploited her own character. In the case of Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead, he was not Roark in the book at all to me. Roark was quite arrogant. Roark was more of a Bogart, Cagney, and Gary Cooper was quiet but strong, you know? If I had tried to make him into a Bogart, it would have been a big mistake. I also learned that when working on The Texas Rangers with Wallace Beery, who played Pat Garrett. Beery was an interesting individual, and stood the test on the screen, but nobody knew Pat Garrett or what he was like. I thought it was more important to let Wallace Beery be Wallace Beery.
RONALD: You were talking about War and Peace a moment ago, and I was interested in something I read that you had planned the battle scenes very minutely rather than turning it over to a second-unit director; you worked through them yourself.
KING: Yes. It was just the reverse of what usually went on. I let the second-unit director take over the cast of actors.
RONALD: Is that right?
KING: Yes. I knew more about battle scenes than some second-unit director, who happened to be an Italian writer.
RONALD: You once said you didn’t care to remember Solomon and Sheba. What was the problem there?
KING: I may have changed my views a little after seeing it recently, but see, I shot half of that picture with Tyrone Power, and I just felt he was giving a superb performance, and then he died. I think Yul Brynner was the right type, as much as Power was.
RONALD: In your experience, how did the breakup of the big studios affect American filmmaking?
KING: It affected it very much, because with me, I was faced with the idea that I had to be a promoter, and I am not a promoter, and didn’t like it. With the big studios, I didn’t have to do any of that. Even though I supplied the ideas, all they had to say was yes and no and that was it. I didn’t have to put packages together.
RONALD: So, in that way, the big studios really gave you freedom.
RONALD: Your work and your personal growth have gone hand in hand?
KING: I feel that it’s true. Luckily, I was equipped to keep going even when I wasn’t making films. I have no regrets about not making films. It gave me a lot of time to do other things, to learn other things. I think it would be interesting to make another film.
RONALD: It would be good for all of us.
KING: Yeah, good.
RONALD: Thank you very much. This has been very interesting.
KING: My pleasure.
Filmography of King Vidor as Director:
(1913) Hurricane in Galveston
(1913) The Grand Military Parade
(1918) A Boy Built City
(1918) Bud’s Recruit
(1918) Dog vs. Dog
(1918) I’m a Man
(1918) Love of Bob
(1918) Marrying Off Dad
(1918) Tad’s Swimming Hole
(1918) The Accusing Toe
(1918) The Case of Bennie
(1918) The Chocolate of the Gang
(1918) The Lost Lie
(1918) The Preacher’s Son
(1918) The Rebellion
(1918) Thief or Angel
(1919) Better Times
(1919) Poor Relations
(1919) The Other Half
(1919) The Turn in the Road
(1920) The Family Honor
(1920) The Jack-Knife Man
(1921) Love Never Dies
(1921) The Sky Pilot
(1922) Conquering the Woman
(1922) Dusk to Dawn
(1922) Peg O’ My Heart
(1922) Real Adventure
(1923) The Woman of Bronze
(1923) Three Wise Fools
(1924) His Hour
(1924) The Wife of the Centaur
(1924) Wild Oranges
(1924) Wine of Youth
(1925) Proud Flesh
(1925) The Big Parade
(1926) Bardelys the Magnificent
(1926) La Boheme
(1928) Show People
(1928) The Crowd
(1928) The Patsy
(1930) Billy the Kid
(1930) Not So Dumb
(1931) Street Scene
(1931) The Champ (unaccredited)
(1932) Bird of Paradise
(1934) Our Daily Bread
(1933) The Stranger’s Return
(1935) So Red the Rose
(1935) The Wedding Night
(1936) The Texas Rangers
(1937) Stella Dallas
(1938) The Citadel
(1940) Comrade X
(1940) Northwest Passage
(1939) The Wizard of Oz (Kansas scenes, uncredited)
(1941) H. M. Pulham, Esq.
(1948) On Our Merry Way
(1946) Duel in the Sun
(1944) An American Romance
(1949) Beyond the Forest
(1949) The Fountainhead
(1951) Lightning Strikes Twice
(1952) Japanese War Bride
(1952) Ruby Gentry
(1955) Man Without a Star
(1956) War and Peace
(1959) Solomon and Sheba
(1980) The Metaphor
Appendix 1: Florence Vidor Biography
Florence Vidor was born in Houston, Texas, and she was named Florence Cobb. In 1915, she married King Vidor, a fellow Texan, and they journeyed to Hollywood by living and traveling in a second-hand Model T Ford. Their trip was financed by Ford Motor Company, who paid them to film travelogue footage. Once on the west coast, Florence worked as a bit player at Vitagraph. Her first important role was as the tragic seamstress in Fox’s 1917 production of A Tale of Two Cities. She appeared with Sessue Hayakawa in Hashimura Togo (1917). By 1923, she had become a major star with roles in Alice Adams (1923), Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (1924), and the Revolutionary War melodrama Barbara Frietchie (1924). Florence’s last film was Chinatown Nights (1929), which was also her first talkie. Many female actresses suffered career failures due to the poor recording equipment available at the time, and Florence was no exception. She wisely retired to dedicate her life to raising three children and caring for Jascha Heifetz, her second husband.
Blum, Daniel. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Brownlow, Kevin and John Kobal. Hollywood: The Pioneers. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1980.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Ballentine Books, Inc., 1968.
Courtney, Marguerite. Laurette. New York: Rinehart, 1955.
Dowd, Nancy and David Shepard. King Vidor. Metuchen, N.J. The Directors Guild of America; London: The Scarecrow Press, 1988.
Franklin, Joe and William K. Everson Classics of the Silent Screen New York: Citadel Press, 1971.
“King Vidor.” New York Times Oral History Program Southern Methodist University Oral History Project of the Performing Arts Sanford: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1978.
“Laurette Taylor a Delight in Adaptation of Her Stage Success.” Film Daily, 17 December, 1922.
“Peg O’ My Heart.” Photoplay, February, 1923.
“Peg O’ My Heart.” Variety, 25 January, 1923.
“The Galveston Storm” By Heidi Lutz in the Galveston Daily News, 13 September, 1900.
Vidor, King. A Tree is a Tree. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952.
This article was written by film historian and author David W. Menefee. His published works include Sarah Bernhardt in the Theater of Films and Sound Recordings, The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era, The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era, Richard Barthelmess: A Life in Pictures (which was recently named one of the Top Ten Film Books of 2009), George O’Brien: A Man’s Man in Hollywood, “Otay!” The Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas Story and Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story (publishing in 2010 by BearManor Media.