KING VIDOR: 'MY HEROES DON'T BELLYACHE--THEY SURVIVE'
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
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.
"Im 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. Im
not a pessimist; Im a realist. I believe we make our own world,
our own universe. My heroes dont bellyache; they wake up and
they work for changes. They survive.
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 didnt 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."
Gilbert became an enormously popular star in "The Big Parade,"
but his magnetism quickly sputtered out with the advent of sound.
"That notion about Johns 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 couldnt put the
thing John was selling into words. He used a lot of four-letter
words that the audience couldnt hear, but they understood.
Then when they heard him mouthing lines like I love you, I
love you truly, they laughed, because the words didnt
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 ones sexual fancy is an automatic shortcut to artistic
"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 wouldnt spend $10 to see a naked man, when
Ive 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 dont
think watching Deep Throat all night makes you mature
with a capital M."
moviegoers look forward to maturity, King Vidor-style? "Ive
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 didnt own him. I cast him with Marion Davies
in Show People, but when he didnt 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. "Its 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."