King Vidor, American (Duel in the Sun – I) – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon (1988)

  • King Vidor, American
  • Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon
  • University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
  • University of California Press, Ltd.
  • London, England
  • © 1988 by The Regents of the University of California
Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck – Duel in the Sun

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Following her father’s execution for the murder of her Indian mother, young Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) comes to live at the vast Texas cattle ranch of “Senator” McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish). Pearl’s blossoming sensuality lures both McCanles sons—Jess (Joseph Gotten), an Eastern-schooled lawyer who has inherited his mother’s refinement, and Lewt (Gregory Peck), a hell-raising chip off the old block. The independent McCanles, long crippled since a fall from his horse while jealously pursuing his wife, faces his severest test from the new railroad. Eventually, tracks are laid through his property, though not before precipitating another fall from his horse and a breach with the civic-minded Jess. After Jess’s exile. Pearl succumbs to a passionate attachment with Lewt, who refuses to acknowledge her publicly. When Pearl half-retaliates and half-recovers by accepting marriage with the older Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford), Lewt guns him down in a bar room. Ever his father’s son, Lewt derails an explosives train as it crosses McCanles land; and when Jess returns with his new fiancee to bring Pearl back with them to Austin, Lewt shoots his brother as well. Faced with Lewt’s continuing threats to the convalescing Jess, Pearl agrees to rendezvous with Lewt in the distant desert mountains—where she shoulders a rifle to initiate their mutually destructive duel in the sun.

David O. Selznick bought the screen rights to Niveh Busch’s novel in 1944, and began planning a modest Western, which expanded as he went along, until he proclaimed his ambition “to go whole hog” and “top” Gone with the Wind.’ When Vidor started reworking a preliminary script by Oliver H. P. Garrett in late 1944, his comments were unenthusiastic. “Dull, dull” is typical marginalia. Vidor conceived “an intense new angle on a Western situation—a small, really small frame.” No doubt willful self-deception played a part in his expecting any such thing once Selznick got going. Vidor was particularly exasperated by Selznick’s repeated breathless arrivals on the set bringing script revisions of scenes just shot. Eventually Vidor withdrew, amidst mutual recrimination. Selznick had brought in Josef von Sternberg as consultant for photography and lighting (in which matter Vidor’s films generally vary with the cameraman), and, for major additional scenes, William Dieterle. Selznick piled on the sex (Hollywood’s first French kiss), violence, and spectacle, and made Lewt progressively more wicked—too much so, Vidor felt, for the film’s tensions to work.

Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck on set – Duel in the Sun

A notebook in which Vidor recorded his dreams throughout 1945 reveals how troubled he was at having felt the need to quit. Selznick haunted him, literally. In one nightmare, Selznick has taken over direction (as he did, for a few scenes) and electric cables transmute into snakes, strangling cast and crew; in another, Selznick talks Vidor into accompanying him to a hospital that turns out to be a lunatic asylum. There was Directors Guild arbitration before Vidor emerged with sole credit. Even so, he deplored later additions such as the scene where Lewt, having dynamited a train and apparently killed the crew, rides away singing “Eve Been Working on the Railroad.” (Vidor noted a preview audience’s dislike for the scene, and presumably further revision occurred, for in the release version a shot shows the stunned but not too badly injured men scrambling from the cab, implying no harm done except to “the company,” so we can relish this “fun” sabotage.)

King Vidor, Lionel Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish on the sound stage of Duel in the Sun 1947 (The house of Barrymore)

Vidor’s film was to have opened with the very confined scene in which Pearl’s father receives his death sentence. The garish saloon dance and prologue were a Selznick afterthought, inspired by his The Garden of Allah (likewise directed by Dieterle and danced by Tilly Losch). Selznick assigned to von Sternberg the duty of supereroticizm Jennifer Jones, and Vidor recalled “von” throwing buckets of water over her to imbue her with just the right excess of glistening sweat. (All a far cry from that icy creation, Marlene—clearly “von” had more than one string to his erotic bow.) One suspects that Selznick himself dreamed up certain tableaulike extreme longshots, given similar night silhouettes in Gone with the Wind.

Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish in Duel in the Sun 1947 (still frame)

It’s traditional to look with suspicion on the products of collaboration. But Duel is hardly alone in enabling us to recognize the work of many hands. Von Sternberg’s moody shadows; Vidor’s free, rather unstable, space and bodily exuberance; and Selznick’s opulence and tableaux take turns in dominating, or even work together. Dieterle is the man most likely to be eclipsed in all this, partly because he was so often Selznick’s right-hand man, partly because he was a versatile craftsman with a gift for moving actors, a metteur-en-scene in the best sense. Duel in the Sun is concerto, not solo.*

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

As for Selznick, his fine-tuned antennae for the feelings of female moviegoers coexisted with a streak of creative fury that could lift soap opera to the level of amour fou. As the French surrealist Ado Kyrou points out, the Selznick-Dieterle Portrait ofJennie really is surrealist about love communicating with a parallel universe beyond death. Selznick had spotted—or felt in himself—a trend in women’s dramas, away from the sentimental, Borzage-style yearnings of the thirties, toward the clashes of egoism, the love/hate themes to come; a trend marked by (1) his own Gone with the Wind (1939), (2) the Goldwyn-Wyler Wuthering Heights (1939), and (3) their country cousin, Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw (1943) (which Selznick had seen before he bought the rights to Duel). If The Outlaw survives as rather listless fun, a very interesting case of celibate sado- misogyny combined with complicated macho-paranoid homophilia, Duel is almost its reverse angle: flamboyantly heterosexual and familial, with misogyny a cause of the tragedy. Both films were the product of a determined producer hiring directors right and left as if possessed by a vision.

Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck – Duel in the Sun

Duel’s flaming bad taste—which earned it the trade nickname “Lust in the Dust”—was entirely unlike the family classics and love stories with which Selznick’s name was so long associated. Yet, he had, after all, been the executive producer, way back, of King Kong and Vidor’s own Bird of Paradise. If Duel is a Selznick film, in its heart of hearts (we like that plurality), it’s sufficiently a Vidor text. While Vidor had no control over its final form, the film remains key to his evolution from an affirmative to a pessimistic emphasis. It’s clear that he experienced distress when the Selznick/von Sternberg/Dieterle consortium allowed sensuality to blossom into the film’s least negative emblem of the life force. Apparently surprised, but impressed, by the public’s acceptance of the film’s balance of moral forces, Vidor repeated elements from it in his subsequent films, but in quite different contexts. Duel’s love/hate exasperation, its theme of American ideals gone rotten and turning lovers’ embraces into bags of snakes, its slaps and dragging death-agonies, set Vidor’s thematic and stylistic agenda for the next ten years. The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest lead directly into Ruby Gentry, which is all but “Duel in the Swamp.”

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun 1946

If Vidor’s films of this period delighted Kyrou, the Marxists of Positif, and a renegade talent like Curtis Harrington, most Anglo-American critics were shocked. What had happened to the robust spiritual health of The Big Parade? the liberal momentum behind Hallelujah? the social activism of Our Daily Bread? As we’ve suggested, the answer may be that the liberal Vidor and Vidor en noir were quite closely related, like hope and disillusionment. The destructive possibilities the earlier films joyously, though not without struggle, overcame, are here unleashed.

Duel in the Sun weirdly conjoins (a) the long tradition of romantic excess; (b) a thoroughly Victorian bourgeois tragedy of love through two generations; (c) the epic Western; and (d) something “modern”—that is, nervous and neurotic. The aspect of melodrama of particular interest in relation to this film is what melodrama owed to romanticism—for example, the stress on lifelong fidelity to passionate commitments, even in terrible solitudes, in such godparents of the genre as Hugo, Dumas, and Emily Bronte. Duel is almost the last sunset of a current of popular romanticism of which certain romantic movies (for instance, Portrait of Jennie) represent one strain and the Western genre another. Duel draws from both strains, and asks to be compared to everything—Wuthering Heights, D. W. Griffith, Nietzsche, “Dallas” . . .

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

It marks a shift from weepie to, shall we say, slappie, and thus to film noir, which regularly had an interest in neurotic violence and in vindicating a “notorious” woman. (It was probably the second film noir in Technicolor, after Leave Her to Heaven.) Pearl’s ride out to exterminate Lewt anticipates the cycle of revenge Westerns (with Randolph Scott for Budd Boetticher and James Stewart for Anthony Mann) that reoriented and revitalized the genre. It looks back to Destry Rides Again and The Outlaw in its mixture of the Western with “women’s themes,” and looks forward to another fifties cycle, matriarchal tales of female McCanleses (noted further in connection with Vidor’s own entry in the cycle, Man without a Star). Duel also precedes by a year or two the little cycle of “liberal” films like Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement that marked a new, cautious, liberalization of Hollywood’s attitudes to America’s assorted racial prejudices. The race barriers are in this film, not because race is exactly its subject, but so as to top all the other barriers that impede passion (class in Cynara, background in The Wedding Night. . .).* To an extent, the film accommodates the “I told you so” of misgivings about miscegenation. But it’s racist in the interesting sense of especially admiring a different ethnicity. Pearl Chavez’s “half-breed” blood is rich blood, not bad blood, and whatever strain of passion she has too much of, the McCanleses have too little of.

Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck – Duel in the Sun

The thirties had been an era of driving action, or tears, the psychology being frisky and mercurial rather than profound. The new brooding over passions and the past (Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Citizen Kane) were a first phase of noir, which led in turn to Hollywood’s discovery of depth psychology (to which another Selznick-Peck picture, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, had given the fillip the year before). Selznick was thus encouraging “new” Freudian ideas with one hand while reviving “old” lurid melodrama with the other. The power of Duel in the Sun comes from its hybrid nature, its Janus soul.

Within the finished film’s sprawl, it’s still possible to discern Vidor’s intent: an intimate scrutiny of a handful of characters cut off from the communities whose values they represent. Senator McCanles’s story is a big-scale Texan tragedy: the individualist turned patriarchal magnate.

***It touches on two other minorities. Butterfly McQueen’s dimwitted black maid isn’t an anti-black icon but a period idea of comic relief on a principal theme, race. Doubtless it’s now as offensive to many as Stepin Fetchit. As Jess cuts the barbed wire to let the railroad through his father’s land, Chinese coolies (who had nearly been shot down by McCanles’s men) stand close by him. Here the racial implication is clearly progressive.

His wife Belle represents an older South, with her southern-belle elegance and culture. But what looks like a culture clash, with the dominant culture in the wrong, turns out to be less simple. McCanles’s harshness to his wife contains a chicken-and-egg riddle: somewhere along the line his possessiveness goes with a passionate vulnerability. In classic Hollywood style, a life-shaping event is recapitulated not by flashback but by recurrence. McCanles’s second fall from his horse occurs after he has lined up his gunmen against the railroad, and then, seeing the U.S. flag under which he fought in the Civil War, called the battle off. His megalomania directs his rage against Belle’s favorite of their sons, Jess, who has taken the side of the railroads. McCanles’s double fall from the saddle suggests, in old melodramatic terms, poetic justice, and in new Freudian ones, accident proneness (i.e., self-punishment), earning him our sympathy for his frustrated vulnerability. And we can regret the noble surrender of this personal era before the impersonal conjunction of railroad officials and government troops (in full Selznick spectacle).

McCanles’s meditative, hillside discussion at sunset with an old friend (Harry Carey) sets the film’s thesis: the pioneering ideal has lost itself in coarseness and brutality on the way to modern America. McCanles’s favorite son, Lewt, and the “half-breed” adopted into their family, Pearl Chavez, might, for Vidor, both be victims of impulsive sensuality arising from their isolation: Lewt as oppressively spoiled son, Pearl as underdog and orphan. As daughter of an Indian dancer and a hanged aristocrat, Pearl has a justifying aspiration upward; but the rich man’s son is just as much the victim of “nature or nurture.” Both heroine and “anti-hero” are equally deprived of steadying family, community, and life task, Pearl for flamboyant reasons (a “broken home” being an understatement), Lewt for subtle ones (to do with the mental violence between his parents). But Pearl recognizes the right values when Belle offers them, and on this point the film comes near a Quaker optimism about decent treatment meeting a quick response. Vidor generally finds the roots of stable feelings within community, and, from that angle, it looks as if Lewt’s and Pearl’s bad environments lead them to become infatuated with an unsuitable “other”— like the attraction between Chick and Zeke in Hallelujah; between H. M. Pulham, Esq., and the sleekly ambitious office girl; between Cynara’s barrister and shopgirl; or between the New York writer and the Polish immigrant of The Wedding Night.

Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

Maybe Vidor, at least early on, was thinking along the lines of The Champ. The do-gooder, Jess, is in sharp (but still fraternal) rivalry with the fighter, Lewt, who gradually becomes as savage as Billy the Kid (another nice, winning brat, with escalating violence). But as Selznick developed the film, the sense of the Code of the West as some sort of norm was lost, and Lewt’s aggressiveness sharpened. Vidor, pushing the character more toward the past, drew from Hallelujah’s Hot Shot and suggested to Gregory Peck the shamble and drawl, the hat slouched over one eye. When Lewt starts killing friends and family for so casual a relationship with Pearl, it looks like pure petulance. Still, his charm—Gregory Peck’s charm—stands for something, for his potential.

Jess represents the America to whom the future belongs. His androgynous Christian name isn’t an insignificant detail, given his closeness to his mother. And his concern with the rights of the “little man” is liberalism and Progressivism in the form Populism was most likely to accept. When he sides with the flag and the railroad (identified as making Texas a land of opportunity for little men) against his father, his motive isn’t a bold, manly, flag-waving patriotism. It’s a result of several other things: his impersonal eastern legal training; his mother’s gentleness; his Populist sympathy for the smaller homesteaders; and his putting principles before family loyalty. He incarnates an attitude it’s altogether in character for Old Man McCanles to detest as schoolmarmish, cold, unfilial, even unpatriotic. Similarly, Robert Frost once defined a liberal as a man who can’t take his own side in an argument (that is, the earnestly moral aren’t very virile as compared with good old red-blooded selfishness). When Jess goes to the showdown against Lewt without taking guns, his act has almost all the virtues: it’s brave and it’s principled, an act of faith in family goodwill, a fraternal solicitude over his brother’s criminal record. But it’s also crypto-pacifist, the sort of “unilateral disarmament” that doesn’t realize that when people threaten you, they may mean it.

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

When, eventually, Jess returns from exile in Austin to his father’s ranch, it is on the train with a quiet, delicate-featured eastern woman, who has the idea of building a spur line to facilitate the transport of cattle. Thus, without bloodshed, the McCanles empire can continue to grow. It’s a Vidorian solution (individualism + acquiescence + enterprise = American fertility = the opposite of the desert). Not that there hasn’t somewhere along the line been a sad loss of the boundless individualism that inspires McCanles’s pioneering and Pearl’s love. Jess’s bride comes from the world of H. M. Pulham, and it’s part of Jess’s sadness that, in resisting the McCanles egoism, he seems short on passion. When, earlier, he rejects Pearl for her sexual weakness with Lewt, it’s in the hard, cold, stiff style of a do-gooder. Vidor’s hesitations over Jess anticipate John Ford’s qualified admiration of James Stewart’s lawyer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another rationalist heir to the individualist’s West. And Jess’s spiritual grandson appears in Kazan’s Wild River, with Montgomery Clift as the New Deal federal agent who tries to persuade a proud old matriarch (a female McCanles) to give up her land. We’re drawn by Jess and Lewt alternately, and the result is a continuous moral suspense. In the following year’s Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin achieved a very complex mixture of Jess (the good, gray, domesticated lover) and Lewt (the psychopathic murderer) that is all the more disturbing for involving, invisibly but omnipresently, his renowned, and then renounced, tramp persona.

Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun

Crucial to Vidor’s more intimate tale is the half-Indian Pearl’s status as our identification figure. In accordance with melodrama’s romantic ancestry, the film casts her inner conflicts in an archaic, nonanalytic mode. Part-Indian, part-Spanish, she’s an earthy, unassimilated, lumpen outsider: every kind of underrace and underclass. There are just two sides to her character. Her good side (she thinks, and we agree) comes from her father, Scott Chavez. As incarnated by Herbert Marshall, his ways are those of an English gentleman, while his patronym evokes the Spanish colonial aristocracy, twice defeated (by the Mexicans, then by the Americans). Too refined, haughty, and unproductive for the greedy West, he has sunk in the world and married the Indian saloon girl who subjects him to the infidelities so luridly evident in the Dieterle prologue. Pearl wants desperately to be her father’s girl, although she is also, as she knows, her mother’s daughter. But the two brothers force both sides to blossom, and the contradiction tears her apart.

*** The difficulties in sorting out a single filmmaker’s contribution are indicated by comparison with a much later feature. Had Selznick’s or Vidor’s name appeared on The Unforgiven (1960), auteurists would have an easy time of it. John Huston’s film features Audrey Hepburn as another orphan half-breed, again reared with two foster brothers, and once again the foster mother is Lillian Gish, once again associated with a grand piano. And just as Pearl must shoot Lewt, the most deeply loved and hated of her foster brothers, so Audrey Hepburn has to shoot her real Indian brother in the face when his war party attacks her foster mother’s log cabin. In the earlier film, a lanky, itinerant “sin-killer” points out that the half-breed girl means trouble; and in The Unforgiven a lanky mist-enshrouded rider says much the same thing. If, surprisingly, the Huston movie can’t hold a candle to the Selznick/Vidor, it’s partly because the battle against the Indians eclipses the internal tensions for which Duel provides neither scapegoat nor counterattraction.

*** Feminist critics often underplay the extent to which the “misogynistic” film noir generally acknowledges its heroes’ misogyny as a disease, albeit one so endemic as to be only normally abnormal. Rita Hayworth’s celebrated song in Gilda (also 1946), “Put the Blame on Marne,” is altogether ironical, a counterattack on Glenn Ford’s (not entirely unjustified) suspicions about her behavior.

King Vidor, American – Front cover

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