King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976) – Duel in the Sun

  • King Vidor
  • Copyright © 1976 by SIMON & SCHUSTER, Inc.
  • Published by MONARCH PRESS
  • a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 1 West 39th Street New York, N.Y. 10018

It is to this family of filmmakers — the clan of Griffith, Walsh and Ford — that King Vidor belongs. In a long and active career he has preserved his personal style from commercial erosion and retained well into the sixties the sense of American landscape which distinguishes his best films. What sets Vidor apart from his contemporaries in this gentle field is, however, a dark, almost demonic view of the land.

Hard riding and soft religion don’t mix, so get goin’. — Title in Vidor’s “The Sky Pilot.”

Duel in the Sun

That Vidor may have seen himself in the same light as these mythical characters is suggested by his frequent confrontations with Hollywood’s most domineering moguls, men with whom no director could hope to work except with a maximum of friction. Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and David Selznick totally opposed Vidor on three matters closest to his heart, Goldwyn in the creation of screenplays, Thalberg in his subservience to popular appeal, Selznick in the choice of locations. Yet it was for these three men that Vidor created his best work. “One often has to make films just to keep one’s name in the public eye,” he remarks, but the rationalization is thin. It is far more likely that only while working with such men was he pressured to do his best.

The hand of Selznick lies heavily but not without a sureness of touch on Duel in the Sun (1946), perhaps the greatest outdoor film of the forties. Niven Busch’s novel had all Vidor’s preoccupations, in particular a conflict between Man, in the person of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), a crippled monument in a wheelchair, and Nature, dramatized by his vast ranch, Spanish Bit. Industry — in this case the railroad — invades this empire, helped by McCanles’s gentle son Jess (Joseph Cotten) but opposed, in imitation of his father, by the libidinous and violent Lewt (Gregory Peck). The innocently erotic Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), an orphan half-caste billeted with the family after the execution of her father for her mother’s murder, is flung from the protective Mrs. McCanles, played with a sense of gossamer and steel by Lillian Gish, to the affection of Jess and (her own preference) the satyriasis of Lewt, with whom she perishes in a demon tryst high in the mountains, both of them shot and dying together.

It is impossible not to be exhilarated by Duel in the Sun, in which Selznick tried with typical single-mindedness to recapture the scope and vivacity of Cone With the Wind. The interference of which Vidor complained added significantly to the film’s success, but Vidor found the constant presence of Selznick on the set galling and walked out when the film was not quite completed.

Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set – candid, duel in the sun

Selznick directed some remaining scenes, William Dieterle handled a Reinhardtesque sequence in the vast bar which opens the film, and second-unit director Otto Brower the train wreck from which Lewt rides away singing, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Even Josef von Sternberg, hired by Selznick to supervise the costume tests and, hopefully, give Jennifer Jones some of the photographic glamour of Marlene Dietrich — Vidor used him as an assistant, having him douse the star with water in scenes requiring the appearance of sweat — directed one brief scene of a posse searching the McCanles house. So acute was Selznick’s obsession with his star that his visits to the set became embarrassing, the microphone picking up his heavy breathing as he watched her. Equally upsetting was a brief visit by D. W. Griffith. “Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish were incapable of speaking their script, especially Barrymore. After a moment I had to ask Mr. Griffith, ‘Would you mind leaving the set or going behind the decor?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been here too long anyway, I apologize.’ And he left very politely.”

After Duel in the Sun, Vidor had a long spell of inactivity, briefly broken by the sketch film A Miracle Can Happen (1948), also known as On Our Merry Way. Its personnel is a catalogue of renegades.

King Vidor in 1931

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