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KING VIDOR: 'MY HEROES DON'T BELLYACHE--THEY SURVIVE'

One of the most imaginative and influential directors of the silent era, King Vidor voiced strong opinions about both silents and talkies in 1976, which is when I had the pleasure of interviewing him for The New York Times. --Guy Flatley

 

"Good films, like good wine, improve with age," said King Vidor, who began his distinguished movie career in 1919 with "The Turn in the Road." Soon the 82-year-old director of such films as "The Big Parade," "The Crowd," "Hallelujah," "Street Scene," "The Champ," "Our Daily Bread," "Stella Dallas," "The Citadel," "Northwest Passage," "Duel in the Sun" and "The Fountainhead" will have a chance to test his theory about the survival of celluloid treasures. On March 18-20, the U.S.A. Film Festival of Southern Methodist University in Dallas will pay him tribute by screening a half-dozen of his most celebrated works.

"I’m a big believer in the individuality of everyone," said Mr. Vidor, by phone, from his sprawling ranch in Paso Robles, Calif. "After I was not making films so much anymore and had time to study them, I found out that a lot of my own individualism, my own philosophy, had rubbed off on the movies I made. I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist. I believe we make our own world, our own universe. My heroes don’t bellyache; they wake up and they work for changes. They survive.

"Not all of my films were done to express my individuality, of course. Some--like ‘Beyond the Forest,’ with Bette Davis--were done for the sake of box-office, for the purpose of keeping my name up there. But the personal films, like ‘The Big Parade,’ seem to have retained their timeliness."

"The Big Parade," considered a financial risk in 1925, turned out to be the most lucrative silent film ever made. "It was about as anti-war as we could get at the time. Up to that point, war movies had glorified officers with tailor-made uniforms and shined boots, and we didn’t know how a story about G.I.’s would go. There was even some discussion about the possibility that exhibitors would refuse to show it in their theaters and we would be forced to show it in tents."

John Gilbert became an enormously popular star in "The Big Parade," but his magnetism quickly sputtered out with the advent of sound. "That notion about John’s voice being too high-pitched for talkies is all cockeyed. His voice was fine. It was just that in the silents he was a dynamic lover, just as Valentino was, and one of the fatalities of sound was that they couldn’t put the thing John was selling into words. He used a lot of four-letter words that the audience couldn’t hear, but they understood. Then when they heard him mouthing lines like ‘I love you, I love you truly,’ they laughed, because the words didn’t match his virile, aggressive approach. The same thing would have happened to Valentino."

The transition from silents to talkies was an ordeal for directors, too. "We believed in the articulate powers of pantomime; we felt the things we were doing were bigger than words. Words reduced the action, the emotions, the story we were trying to tell. It was like using words at the ballet. It made specific what we wanted to keep general. We could no longer appeal simultaneously to all audiences, to the various levels of age and intelligence and sophistication. People were no longer free to fill in their own words."

Not only do contemporary movies talk, they talk dirty. Mr. Vidor, however, does not feel that the freedom to say--and show--whatever strikes one’s sexual fancy is an automatic shortcut to artistic achievement.

"The sight of a couple having sexual intercourse is not a good enough reason for people to spend money on babysitters. As Groucho Marx says, ‘I wouldn’t spend $10 to see a naked man, when I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror all my life for free.’ Hemingway once talked about proving his manhood by drinking a whole quart of liquor in one night. He thought that made him a man with a capital ‘M.’ Well, I think you can prove your manhood by taking one drink and then stopping. By the same token, I don’t think watching ‘Deep Throat’ all night makes you mature with a capital ‘M.’"

Can moviegoers look forward to maturity, King Vidor-style? "I’ve done a script on the making of ‘The Crowd,’ on my relationship with James Murray, the star of the film. It was a love-hate relationship. Even though I discovered him when he was an extra, he wanted to prove that I didn’t own him. I cast him with Marion Davies in ‘Show People,’ but when he didn’t show up I had to replace him with William Haines. Years later, I ran into him when he was mooching money for a cup of coffee. I bought him a meal and a drink and told him I would put him in ‘Our Daily Bread,’ but that he would have to reduce, to lay off the beer. He stood up, cursed me, and walked off. I never saw him again. He ended up on the Bowery, and one day when he was performing and dancing around for a bunch of passersby, he fell into the East River and drowned. The crowd thought it was part of his performance, and they laughed."

At present, Mr. Vidor is editing a 16-millimeter documentary that he shot with Andrew Wyeth. "It’s about the influence of ‘The Big Parade’ on his painting. Wyeth says he has seen the movie 188 times," said the veteran director with childlike wonder and pride. "And his wife says he is telling the truth."