With The Jack-Knife Man (1920), the Vidor oeuvre proper commences. The recruiting poster poseur of Bud’s Recruit is out. The Backyard Expressionist is IN. For the next four decades, before his creativity finally jack-knifed on the highway to Monism, Vidor managed to keep his camera trained on the crossroads between Mid-Victorian Melodrama and Modernist Mindfuck. It’s a rich symbiosis of incident and interiority; surface and surfeit subjectivity. You’re never lost in a Vidor film–but you never know quite where you stand, either. If you’re looking for the missing link between D.W. Griffith and David Lynch–you’ve come to the right place!
Like all of the director’s films, The Jack-Knife Man places the ideal and the quotidian worlds side by side, and then steps back to see (and show) how things’ll play out this time. Nothing is predetermined in these movies. And there’s never anything so simple as a mere clash between the subjective and objective realms. Vidor understands that these terms have no meaning without each other. We get “dreamers”. We get “reality”. What we don’t get is a Capraesque war to the knife between the two. Don’t get me wrong–I love Frank Capra. In the ol’ university days, I wrote reams of papers about his place within the “American Jeremiad” tradition discussed by Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch and others. It’s just that, these days, I’m more interested in exploring the messy ways people have of transplanting their hopes directly out of (and then back into) the plots that they’re born into. Capra gives us too much metaphysical hierarchy–too little insight. His prophets simply wander into town from Mandrake Falls and outlast the cynics (all audience surrogates). Their ideas are never tested–only their ability to preach is. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m always gonna love it–but I think it rests upon shaky (or, rather, far too secure!) foundations. The imagination, or the human spirit, or the visionary impulse, or whatever you wanna call it, just isn’t that autonomous. I’m not saying that the mind isn’t its own place–it most definitely IS! But there ARE ways to get to it (like those secret passages in Clue) from the material and social world. And no one can get you from the Kitchen to the Study (and back and forth and back again) like King Vidor.
Case in point, our “jack-knife man” himself, Peter Lane (beautifully played by old pro F.A. Turner):
When we first meet him, he’s not a jack-knife man at all! He’s an old codger who lives in a “shanty-boat”, keeps to himself, makes lots of coffee (man do I ever love filmed scenes of people making coffee! Kings Row is the best for that) and busies himself by fidgeting with clocks …. “a tin clock is just like a baby,” he tells a rebuffed boat-buyer, “she don’t do a thing you’d expect all day long!”
In Capra, this would be presented as wisdom. A simple insulating mechanism that would help to keep the protagonist “pure”–like Longfellow Deeds’ tuba or Long John Willoughby’s “doohickey”. In Vidor, it is purely and simply naivety–the kind that has to be dispensed with. It’s not the world that needs Peter (like NYC needs Deeds)–it’s the other way around. This guy, basically, needs a life. It’s not that he must abandon his inner being for the inauthentic hustle of the metropolis (that’s a false, Capraesque distinction)–it’s that he needs to put his imagination into Port Real for badly needed repairs.
And that’s precisely what happens. Peter Lane–shanty-boat recluse–is laid low, not by the Holy Spirit, but by the irruption of a badly broken family into his home. In good epiphanic fashion, the big change is highlighted by a burst of light:
Said light is generated by a particularly vicious storm–which drives Lize Merdin and her young charge “Buddy” into Peter’s cubbyhole universe. The woman is near death–and the boy is starved (but quite affable). The old man does what he can to comfort them, settling Lize on a cot and heading out into the rain to trade his beloved clock for some crucial victuals!
At this point, we are introduced to the Widow Potter–who starts out seeming like Aunt March in Little Women, but is very quickly revealed to be more of a Marilla Cuthbert (that’s Anne of Green Gables, young adult fiction fans!) type. Gruff with a heart of gold. Even more intriguing–she’s kind of in love with our Peter (and wishes he’d grow up)… When the middle-aged lady retires to her rocker and her knitting, Vidor hits us with a virtuoso move that takes us from “naturalism” to “lyricism” in the blink of an eye–as an image of Peter as domestic companion appears facing her:
Embodied goodwill has a way of “rolling through all things” in The Jack-Knife Man–and this scene clues us in to the fact that the visionary world presented by the film emanates from more than one source. From here on out, it will be a (growing) team effort–with dreams folding into dreams in a snowballing avalanche of tender misprision.
Along the way, we meet another (far more extroverted) artist figure. The singing vagabond–“Booge”–who delights Buddy with his music and his footloose noncomformity:
This happy wanderer will be back–after a little jaunt to the hoosegow.
But first–to the Jack-Knife!
Our friend Peter takes up this charming habit as a direct result of being shaken out of his comfort zone by dire necessity… Lize dies the next morning–and young Buddy must be consoled! And so he gets a “veritable Noah’s Ark” of jack-knife carved animals to play with:
These creatures are not pure natives of Peter’s mind–they are NOT his gift to the world (as I have said, left to his own devices, Peter’s preference is for rusty old clocks–in Vidor, the hermit is not a “sage”, he is a robot). Rather, the animals are the issue of this man’s long-delayed plunge into the inter-subjective world. They do not represent a “going-forth” of the spirit. They are the emblems of a soul’s expansion. This point is definitely established later on, when “New York Clubwoman Marcia Montgomery” comes to town (dazzled by tales of the toys). She, of course, assumes that he was moved to create them by some inner artistic impulse–and Peter sets her straight: “I did them to please Buddy.” They had no prior existence in his mind. They were called forth by a particular person, in a particular situation.
Well, she responds, there are thousands of Buddys out there, each of whom might be comforted by his unique gifts (and again the friendly wraiths appear):
And, with that, we are off to the races!
–After a harrowing interlude caused by the malicious interference of the Dickensian bureaucrat Rasmer Briggles–who rounds up orphans at $20 a head and places them in the most uncongenial homes possible, the Widow Potter finds Buddy and adopts him (along with his long-lost sister Susie!)
–The Jack-Knife Man achieves a measure of celebrity (and makes enough money to shave and buy his OWN bread, every once in a while)–thanks in large part to the kind influence of Marcia Montgomery, played by the lustrous Florence Vidor (then married to the director):
–On a work camp, “Booge” learns that Buddy and Susie are actually HIS children (he had been married, unhappily, to Lize Merdin–in another life)
–A grown-up Peter Lane returns to the sticks in a marryin’ mood–much to the delight of the Widow Potter:
–and, in a boldly Victorian gambit of coincidence, “Booge” wanders back onto the scene just in time to witness the genesis of the happy home he himself was never able to provide for his children, or for Lizzie. Of course he leaps clear of this “happy ending juggernaut”–adding one more layer of visionary subjectivity wrapped in the prosaic trappings of the “real” (and stunningly anticipating a similar–even more potent–moment from Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas):
Whose dream IS THIS, anyway?
I’ll leave you with that!
Good night friends!