With Peg O’ My Heart (1922), the director’s first film for Metro Pictures (soon to be engulfed by a Metro-Goldwyn Merger), we are introduced to a crucial element of King Vidor’s cinema–the underdog female. The film’s eponymous protagonist (played by Broadway star Laurette Taylor) is a clear forerunner of Rose Maurrant (Street Scene), Doris Emily Lea (Cynara), Manya Novak (The Wedding Night), Stella Dallas, Peal Chavez (Duel in the Sun), Rosa Moline (Beyond the Forest) and Ruby Gentry (to name only the characters who come immediately to my mind!) Of course, last time out, we met Colleen Moore as Gwen–a very interesting female character whose spiritual struggle ambushes center stage during the last third of The Sky Pilot; but Gwen is the daughter of a wealthy rancher–more in the tradition of Valette Bedford (So Red The Rose)… So, yeah, in my opinion, the long, fascinating march to Ruby Gentry (my personal favourite) begins here!
Not that we’re anywhere near those exalted heights in Peg O’ My Heart. One of the great things about going through an “auteur’s” entire oeuvre is watching as the director gains the confidence (and stature within the industry) to steer material in the direction of his/her presumed thematic bent… TANGENT ALERT: I say “presumed”, of course, to distinguish my project from the old naive auteurism–which laboured under the delusion that critics could use films to learn the “truth” about an individual artist… I’m not watching these films in order to “get to know” King Vidor… “King Vidor”, for me, is an organizing principle–a regal rope that cordons off a huge chunk of Hollywood material (made during a crucial period in American cultural history) and gives me (and you, and every cineaste we know) an opportunity to hitch my interpretive wagon to the stars! (I’d say END OF TANGENT, but let’s face it–I’m pretty much ALL tangent)
Where were we? Oh…yes… the tale of a 28-year old director, a largish Hollywood studio that’s about to go nova, and a very well established stage property. When a major Broadway moneymaker comes West, complete with star, no one short of (in 1922) D.W. Griffith is going to stand much of a chance of getting their “auteur” on… Still, Peg O’ My Heart does present us with a lot of Vidorian elements–it just doesn’t put them together in a way that hits home (and that’s a pretty major point–because using modernist techniques to maximize the emotional impact of 19th century melodrama tropes is the absolute heart of King Vidor’s cinema).
Right then–to the elements!
As I mentioned earlier, the most important one is “Peg” herself–real name Margaret O’Connell (“Peg” is her Irish rebel father’s term of affection)
There she is, with dear ol’ Da’ himself, going over a rabble-rousing speech… They do make an endearing pair, traveling over hill and dale, regaling their fellow citizens with tales of English oppression (“life was happy for those two wandering patriots”–an intertitle tells us). They give their speeches out of the back of a covered wagon–and they know just what to do when the authorities come a knockin’ (they order the flock to scatter; he plays a harmless drunk-; she plays with her dog Michael and looks coy):
They come by their radicalism through heart-wrenching personal experience, having watched Peg’s mother die of societal neglect (regular Irish folk, the film tells us, have no hope of paying for medical treatment–and this fact is exacerbated by the knowledge that Mrs. O’Connell’s English family COULD have sent the money to save her–if only they hadn’t written her off for marrying a Catholic). Their embattled idyll (a very Vidorian idea) comes to an abrupt close when one of those same English relatives repents on his deathbed, setting money aside for young Margaret’s education, IF she will go to England and learn some manners from her “better” relatives. Of course she refuses–but her father has not forgotten the painful sight of his beautiful wife dying in squalor (the carefree life of a “wandering patriot” is liable to be tripped up by the slightest viral infection)–and he orders her to accept the Chichester family’s offer.
So it’s off to England! (With canine companion Michael in tow.) Naturally, upon reaching her destination in the upper crust of the abyss, she is mistaken for a servant and sent to sulk in the scullery. There, we get a fine comedic sequence in which Peg endeavors to fit everything in the room into her hungry mutt’s mouth:
Laurette Taylor is fantastic here–demonstrating why Broadway loved her; and why Hollywood asked the director to let her loose. (Michael is great too–and, at several points, this pair looks ahead to the quintessential girl and her dog moment in American cinema: the “Over the Rainbow” scene–directed by King Vidor–in The Wizard of Oz.) Taylor is an extraordinary light comedian. The problem with the rest of the film is that it asks us to take Peg/Margaret’s ordeal seriously. It’s not that the actress lacks emotional range. It’s just that everything falls into place so schematically (and the camera generally adopts such a respectfully objective perspective upon the events), that a favourable outcome is never in doubt. That’s not a problem in the bravura set-up that Vidor gives us within the main hall of the mansion on a stormy night:
Nor do we notice the film’s deficiencies while it gambols through the apple orchard next door (owned by “farmer” Jerry–who, of course, turns out to be an English Lord with a heart of gold–to make up for the terrible Chichesters, who lord it over our Peg like a pack of wicked Cinderella cast members):
Every time the director gives us Peg (and Michael) shooting toward the camera out of a sublime natural background, we are back in prime Vidor territory. The problem is that these are undercut by the “stagier” (not a term I generally bother with, but in this case it actually insists upon itself) “plot point” moments:
The story of King Vidor’s oeuvre will be a gradual movement toward the complete eradication of scenes like the one above (do you care what’s happening in it? Of course you don’t)–a process that will disclose the startling fact that the 19th century melodrama of coincidence and external vicissitude can provide a magnificent vehicle for dramatizing the confused journey of the modern subject through the deceptively bright murk of “participatory” democracy.
But all of that’s still to come! For now, I’ll content myself with pointing out a very characteristic Vidor gambit which livens up the intertitles at the eleventh hour. As I hinted earlier, good ol’ Lord Jerry eventually comes through and professes his undying love for Margaret (whom HE also takes to calling “Peg O’ My Heart”). This is how melodrama always deals with politics/class oppression (i.e. by resolving conflict through a fantasy relationship):
Same surface meaning–but what a difference! These words could easily serve as the interpretive key to the director’s entire filmography. For King Vidor, love can, indeed, affect the world. However, very soon now, the gloves will be off, and the effects won’t always be so pretty. In fact, more often than not, they’ll be as twisted as life itself.
good night friends!