- 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
JOHN BAXTER is the author of numerous books on film, including The Cinema of John Ford, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell, and Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stunt Men. He contributes regularly to the London Times and Sunday Times Magazine.
A Demonic Landscape
There is a sense in which all American film is geographic. No national cinema places more emphasis on the outdoors, or more intimately relates the attitudes and preoccupations of its characters to the shape and symbology of the land. Almost every major work of American silent cinema has its component of landscape, and classics abound in which nature assumes a power and mystical significance: Way Down East, Greed, The Wind, The Iron Horse, The Salvation Hunters, The Cold Rush, The General and Sunrise are obvious examples.
Thalberg (Irving) confirmed MGM’s view of The Big Parade as a Gilbert vehicle by allocating the same star to Vidor for his next two films, a big budget version of La Boheme (1926) to star Gilbert and the studio’s newest acquisition, Lillian Gish, and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), in which he romped with unaccustomed panache in a story adapted from Rafael Sabatini. Little seen today, La Boheme has great and enduring merit, containing one of Lillian Gish’s most intense performances. With the honeymoon period of her contract still at its height, she could dictate terms to Thalberg. As a subject she asked for a version of Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme adapted by her friend Mme. Frederick de Gresac, and for her director, after seeing two reels of the still-uncompleted The Big Parade, King Vidor. Even Vidor’s reverence for Griffith flagged when Miss Gish demanded full rehearsals in The Master’s style, but like all her directors he could not fault her dedication. Preparing to play the frail seamstress Mimi who sacrifices herself so that her lover, the playwright Rodolphe, can write his masterpiece, she visited hospitals to study the symptoms of terminal tuberculosis, drank no fluids for three days before her death scene and dried her mouth with cotton pads. This sequence — actually quite routine in effect, though cast and crew found it traumatic—is merely the culmination of a performance disturbing in its sense of sickness. The feeling of cold as she huddles in her unfloored and empty flat, the blood-smeared mouth after her first seizure, her exhaustion as she drags herself like a sick cat across Paris, clinging to passing vehicles and to the vast city walls as Paris towers indifferently above her are components of a rich, moving characterization beside which Gilbert’s capering Rodolphe and the other bohemians, no matter how Vidor makes them dance, clown and pose to enliven the static script, become irrelevant.
La Boheme showed Gilbert in a poor light — literally, since Miss Gish brought in Hendrick Sartov to create glamorized, heavily gauzed close-ups that undermined his importance to the story. (Erte had also been hired to do the costumes; the star rejected his designs as too fancy.) Gilbert, according to Miss Gish, fell in love with her and proposed marriage when the film ended, so he may have been happy to give her the lioness’s share of the production. He was no better served by Bardelys the Magnificent. With Gilbert’s collusion and perhaps with covert encouragement from Mayer, who disliked his amoral life style and sensed that the era of the matinee idol was dying, Vidor used Sabatini’s story to show Gilbert in a new and unflattering light, that of an action star a la Douglas Fairbanks. Cutting a poor figure as a fencer and relying on stunt men for such spectacular coups as an escape from his own execution on a parachute improvised from an awning, Gilbert is comfortable only in the love scenes, particularly the much- quoted river sequence in which he and Eleanor Boardman glide under drooping willow boughs. Despite the efforts of many close friends, including Vidor, Gilbert destroyed himself with drink and melancholy, both the actor and the industry magnifying the problems of his light speaking voice into an obsession. “Jack died before his time,” said Vidor, “and death perhaps came as a great relief.”
For all their elegance and flair, La Boheme and Bardelys the Magnificent could have been the work of any top MCM staff director; Clarence Brown might well have extracted more from them than did Vidor. But Vidor, like Griffith, regarded himself as a thinker on film. Now established at Metro, he could enlarge on his personal ethic, exhort audiences to optimism and self-help, and offer cautionary tales on the perils of failure. One might have expected films which mined the same profitable vein as Frank Capra’s, but Vidor’s pragmatism, characteristic of one brought up in Christian Science, ensured that his parables were underlaid with a bleak doubt. While Ford and Capra knew that a good man who kept faith would always survive, Vidor believed that survival is subject to the caprice of a malevolent destiny. As Job meditates, the Lord giveth, but the Lord taketh away.