King Vidor – Only in America

in 70th Berlinale Berlin International Film Festival

by Christopher Small

 

Much remains myth about the work of King Vidor, a complex figure and filmmaker. I got the chance to see around twenty of his films at the 70th Berlinale this year, though that giant, glitzy spectacular today seems like it was from another era of history. As I write this, I am standing in an entirely different epoch, peering back at a fast-vanishing past. I don’t want to force the relevance of Vidor’s movies to our present moment, though their excesses and crazy politics certainly have some connection to the excesses and crazy politics of much of the world in 2020. And it is astonishing that by “present moment” I truly can refer to the changes of the more-than three months since I arrived home from Berlin on March 1st with some precision, such has been unbelievable acceleration of history since then.

As is the case with any person who makes fifty movies, thirty-five of which showed in Berlin over the course of the ten days I was there, Vidor’s filmography can be sliced many different ways. Part of the reason this man has remained an enduring figure in the cinephile imagination is that his work turns up both a plethora of classics as well as bundles of idiosyncratic oddities tucked into the crannies of his oeuvre. Discovering somebody whose work strikes a balance between the two is the dream of a cinephile.

Whichever way you cut it Vidor’s achievement as a filmmaker is major, even as the mere history-making attributes of his work. His Hallelujah (1929) was one of the first major American films with an all-black cast; The Big Parade (1925) was one of the first “war is hell” blockbusters, with a battlefield back half that seared images of wartime horror into the popular imagination; The Crowd (1928) not only bucked virtually all the narrative trends of silent film romance but also in making it Vidor was unafraid to show basic work as something dull and even soul-destroying—far from the norm in late ‘20s American popular culture. Even more anomalous is one of his best-remembered smaller films, the quasi-socialist Our Daily Bread from 1934, which somehow bizarrely and not all that tidily combines the individualistic American spirit with the collective one.[1]

But surprisingly Vidor’s filmography struck me, as I visited and revisited it over the course of my time in Berlin, as overwhelmingly conservative. And not as “confused” in the manner of much of Hollywood’s deliberate political ambiguity. I knew about his adaptation of The Fountainhead (1949) but also of other movies that have always been celebrated for their progressive, even left-wing virtues. Nevertheless, his conservativism, unlike many of his colleagues’, is closer to Barry Goldwater’s radicalism than to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prevailing centre-right liberalism. The latter worldview would dominate the political world in the United States throughout the last decade of Vidor’s career, while the former would linger below the surface, winning the hearts and minds of many business-minded men of Vidor’s temperament and persuasion, through and until the year of his final film (and the election of Ronald Reagan) in 1980.

All this is apparently at odds with the progressive patina of many of Vidor’s more famous movies. Unlike many of his similarly would-be reactionary peers, Vidor’s individualistic worldview never seemed to dual with his artistic spirit. Whereas, say, Leo McCarey would produce conflicted works riven with difficulty and contradiction, Vidor seemed a man of scant self-doubt. His gifts worked to produce films of remarkable ideological consistency, some of the great right-wing works of the era and, equally, some of the most demented.

But he also shifted decisively from one phase to another over the course of his more than five decades in the business, retaining his Christian libertarian politics while reinventing himself as an artist. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, in keeping with the spirit of the country, he turned out a string of astonishing “socially conscious” films about the working poor; movies that pass for progressive now that the circumstances of their production have been obscured.[2] These are movies that, even when produced in an overwhelmingly liberal climate, such as was the case in ‘30s America, betray the underlying libertarian conservative worldview of their maker.

Indeed, Vidor made a movie practically about this exact struggle: An American Romance (1944). The story of Stefan Dubechek (later Steve Dangos, played by Brian Donlevy), a Czech-speaking immigrant from Austro-Hungary who comes to the United States, gets his name changed by a factory foreman, and steadily makes something of himself in the steel trade and in automobile manufacturing. Its alternate title, An American Miracle, is maybe even more apt; the American Dream has never received a more hagiographic, spiritualistic treatment in extended popular form. Once the arc of Steve Dangos’ fateful rise is complete, Vidor confronts the conservatives in his audience with the dilemma of the day: is it necessary to side-line political disagreement at a time when—if not in the film itself, but certainly in reality—the whole country was rallying around the United States’ powerful liberal president in the name of winning the war?

For many filmmakers like Vidor who continued to produce high-profile work after the Second World War, their continued productivity went hand in hand with a kind of coarsening or intensifying of their politics. The impulses that only a decade before may have been sublimated in their work at least in part to the needs and requirements of mass entertainment, or perhaps to the spirit of New Dealism that even the staunchest conservatives working in a popular medium had to reluctantly tip their hat to were, after Roosevelt’s war had ceased, let loose. This happened not only with conservatives but with all “acceptable” positions across the ideological spectrum.

In the face of reactionary hysterias in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, prominent liberal directors often moved away from comedies or genre films and into prestige work of a serious-minded nature. These same cultural and political forces of reaction allowed conservatives to flourish. Besides the stench of anti-Communism in the air that was conducive to their politics and worldview, they were generally able to find their footing in the midst of a quiet but growing backlash against New Deal policies that would only grow with the remainder of the decade.[3] Though Vidor had never exactly had his rhetorical weapons blunted by the studio system, he did round out the ‘40s with the apotheosis of his wild political imagination, something perhaps only possible in this brief window of particularly nutso Red Scare paranoia, the delirious Ayn Rand adaptation The Fountainhead (1949).

Vidor’s version of Rand’s novel is pure ideology, which of course teases out its own fascinating internal contradictions, which are quite Trumpian. Its sheer nuttiness lays bare, in an exaggerated way, the sexual politics embedded within the American myth of the macho individual fighting against the tyranny of conformity. But also fascinatingly, the film’s most craven conformists, the obvious objects of our scorn as an audience, are themselves businessmen and entrepreneurs. Of course, this is all to reemphasise the singularity of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), who could never compromise and conform with his art of his business. Vidor sees the conformists as something like fallen angels, men who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps but who have betrayed their class interests and bent to the dictates of a rabid mass public demanding they diminish their integrity. “It’s always good to attack the rich,” says one newspaperman. “Everybody will help you. Even the rich.”

Vidor’s The Crowd, a leftist film by reputation, ends with a horizontal swoop over the garrulous audience of a cinema hall. The people are laughing uproariously at something on the screen, twisting in their seats with delight. They cackle in unison. This disturbing moment is, of course, a mirror of the film’s most famous image: rows of desks in a cavernous office space, with each man anonymously grinding the day away at his soulless work. The implication is an extraordinarily cynical one. Ultimately, Vidor suggests, as many conservatives do, we should not abolish this kind of onerous work from society. That it saps the will of men is only true because men like Howard Roark, Steve Dangos, or Vidor himself—the exceptions—have no business toiling in that class for long. Somebody has to do it, just not these guys. Whether in the cinema hall or in the workplace, these hierarchies exist, in Vidor, for a reason.

“You’ll never be free from work,” cautions Margaret Sullivan’s Southern Belle in So Red the Rose (1935) to the crowd of newly freed slaves congregating before her plantation mansion. She is talking them out of a frenzy of uncontrollable looting that erupted after the government gave them their freedom. It is an ugly moment that carries a particularly painful sting as I think about it today. In these movies, all of life is some form of duty.

 

[1] In another fascinating apparent contradiction, this would-be socialist film was loved by the Nazis. Werner Kerk, one of the Reich’s leading film critics and tastemakers, wrote that Our Daily Bread is, “a captivating picture of all our wishes, aims and hopes, of our work, our fight and of our victory […] here it is, as we must grudgingly admit, eventually realised by an American in a truly cinematic way.”

[2] Worth noting: Vidor’s Street Scene (1931) was based on the play of the same name by Elmer Rice, a prominent, independent-minded leftist who opposed both Hoover and FDR enough to vote for the Communist Party in the 1932 Presidential Election.

[3] Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, known as Taft-Hartley, restricted the power of unions and represented the first major blow to the legacy of the New Deal. Cracks were beginning to show, resistance fomenting. Though it was passed by Congress in 1947, the effects only truly began to be felt in the early ‘50s—the “starting pistol” effect of this law fed into the momentum of a decade-long backlash, which almost carried Taft himself to the top of the 1952 Republican ticket, before he was beaten out by the moderate Eisenhower. Barry Goldwater winning the Republican nomination in 1964 was the first major flowering of this rightward reorientation of American politics.

Christopher Small
© FIPRESCI 2020