KING VIDOR – 1988
Interviewed by Nancy Dowd and David Shepard
King Wallis Vidor, 1894-1982
King Vidor died peacefully at his ranch in Paso Robles on November 1, 1982, As his family subsequently gathered his belongings from various homes and storerooms, it became clear that he had preserved an amazing collection of personal and professional papers. One small trunk became the basis for Sidney Kirkpatrick’s best-selling book A Cast of Killers (1986), and the entire collection was subsequently donated to the University of Southern California where it is available to researchers . Other collections of Vidor papers may be found at the UCLA Research Library and at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The volume of material is daunting , but would make possible a definitive biography of a pioneer film artist who was also a beautiful and extraordinary human being.
In a Griffith picture Lillian Gish would put her finger against herself and that would mean, “You mean me?” When somebody in a Sennett comedy pointed upstairs, that meant, “My husband’s upstairs,” or “My wife’s upstairs.” So, if Lillian Gish or Griffith would do some gesture that would come through as having the same meaning as a sentence or paragraph, everybody else would pick it up. As director, I would also pick these up. You never knew exactly what gesture you were going to use to express something. I’m puzzled today, wondering how Gloria Swanson and Garbo and all of those people earned such tremendous salaries when they couldn’t speak. Well, they had certain ways of doing things, certain expressions and gestures. In today’s world of underacting, it all looks quite humorous.
VIDOR: We had music on the set. I discovered if you wanted actors to work fast, you would let the music play fast, and if you wanted them to slow down, you slowed the music down. My biggest influence in music came from Griffith because I saw the Griffith films in downtown Los Angeles with the big symphony orchestra. Griffith worked on different themes for different characters in a picture. I was impressed with Hearts of the World , how Lillian Gish’s theme was from an opera. He used Brahms’ Lullaby in another picture. It helped my growing impression of music in silent films. I wasn’t into the use of the metronome until I made a picture called Three Wise Fools.
DOWD: How did it feel to see the dying scene, after all these years of not having seen the picture?
VIDOR: I thought it looked absolutely convincing. She looked really dead. There is no movement of breath, her eyes, or her mouth. I have never seen a picture of somebody looking dead right away, but her performance sure convinced me.
DOWD: Did you do that in one take?
VIDOR: Yes, we did. In the earlier part of the film her face is round and healthy, and during the course of the story she gets progressively long and thin, with her cheeks sunken. In preparation Lillian Gish stuffed cotton in her mouth, and did not drink any liquids for three days before we shot that scene. It looks absolutely astounding. This was also some hypnotic influence she had over her body. When it came time for her to die, she threw herself into the dying so much that it’s about as close to dying as you can get without actually doing it.
You can’t take someone playing a gentle, sweet part like Lillian Gish and throw her into the part of a prostitute and make it convincing. It just doesn’t work, no matter how good the actors or actresses are. It takes more than just acting. It takes a certain quality that comes from the screen.
VIDOR: We ran Gone With the Wind and looked at the area around the big house, Tara. We planned it so that all of the big backgrounds would be in the opening scene. That was what set the atmosphere as they approach the house, where Joseph Cotten goes to meet Jennifer Jones and she gets out of the stagecoach. We would explain what had happened and the fact that she was reluctant to talk about it when she first meets Barrymore and Lillian Gish. My plan was to explain the story up to Jennifer’s arrival with dialogue while we were looking at this tremendous ranch and all of the land that went with it. Later on David wanted to blow up the picture to a bigger size. He wanted to open with a big splash, open with the Mexican dance hall, which I felt was very unreal. It may look fine now, but at the time I didn’t want to do it.
Getting back to the whole second unit director problem, there was just no reason for me to take time out and shoot a simple scene like that when I had people like Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore waiting to do their scenes. Just to have them sitting around would have cost the company a lot of money. I was grateful to have Otto working with me.
DOWD: Isn’t there a famous story about D.W. Griffith corning out to visit you on the set? Where did that happen?
VIDOR: That was in Culver City at the studio. I imagine Lillian Gish was in touch with him over the years, and she asked me if it would be all right for him to come out and watch us on the set one day. Barrymore, who had been a Griffith star, was also excited about it. I was pleased because at one time I had worked for him as an extra. I had never met him before, and I certainly didn’t know him personally.
DOWD: What was it like to direct Lillian Gish again after you had directed her twenty-six years before?
VIDOR: It was a difference of her playing a teenage seamstress in the first film, and a grandmother in the second film. I suppose we had kept in touch. Ever since La Boheme we had remained good friends. She is a marvelous old pro, always on the job. She knew what she was doing, and she gave it everything she had. I can think of nothing but joyful things when I recall our work together.