King Vidor’s Wild Oranges(1924) brings us into the High Silent Age, complete with tinted reels; lush location photography; perfected romantic pantomime; soft focus galore; drooling, lurking evil + its correlative: skulking, cringing fear; the Goldwyn Pictures Lion (see below) and June Mathis “Editorial Direction”.
Last time on Vidor Theatre, Peg O’ My Heart gave us flashes of intense emotion (generated by virtuoso set pieces), diluted by an overly-schematic plot that tick-tocked its way between the high spots in a far from salutary way. Wild Oranges spits out those seeds of logic and lets flow the cinematic zest.
This is not a film for the literal-minded. No Vidor movie is. If you care about whether story points or characters’ actions “make sense” on the surface, you’ll have problems with Wild Oranges. My advice? Stop caring. Because there’s a lot to love here–and you don’t want to distract yourself with the thought that everything could have been settled ten minutes into the proceedings.
We begin tragically, with a newlywed buggy-ride that ends in senseless death:
That tormented, ineffectual groom (John Woolfolk–played by Frank Mayo) is destined to become our problematic protagonist. The scene provides a masterful dramatization of human helplessness. In an inspired touch, Woolfolk’s manic dash back and forth along the path is cross-cut with shots of this piece of drifting newsprint (which actually precedes the buggy-riders onto the screen):
For 3 long years, we are told, it’s just Woolfolk, the waves, the good ship “Yankee” and the craft’s cook + sailor, Paul Halvard (played by Ford Sterling). We catch up with them just off the Georgia coast, when they decide to put into a secluded harbour for supplies. It’s not a hospitable place to make a pit stop, since there’s only one house on this particular shore, and there’s a treacherous sandbar in the way (which will come into play big time, near the end of the movie)–but then again, these guys aren’t looking for hospitality.
Next, we get an interesting ship-to-shore (and shore-to-ship) crossfire of bruised subjectivities.
The cagey Woolfolk uses his binocs to spy on Millie Stope (played by Virginia Valli):
Meanwhile, this old man seems unduly concerned about the appearance of the ship:
This hulking dude is just as disturbed–and looks more capable of making a nuisance of himself:
Everyone is afraid of everyone else in Wild Oranges. If not physically, then existentially. Hell is definitely other people in this film. That goes for the entire Vidor oeuvre. Every collision, or chance alignment, between subjects is treated as a cosmic event. Every person is a planet, shrouded in an atmosphere of memories, dreams and attitudes. Every friendship, or enmity, or instance of romantic attraction is serious business, and worth charting in full, no matter how badly this warps conventional narrative logic.
Woolfolk goes ashore, which is a big deal for him, and immediately gets more than he bargained for from those eponymous oranges:
There’s bitterness and pungency galore in the scenes that follow this abortive snack. We get a tender exhange between Woolfolk and Millie that is quickly soured by his inability to respond adequately to her joyous discovery of his humanity.
As is usual with Vidor, it is the female protagonist who does the heavy spiritual lifting, moving from this
All Woolfolk has to to do is buy in and really accept what she’s offering–but it’ll be more than an hour before that happens. While he’s dawdling, Nicholas (the hulking freak from before), gets to run amok for an unreasonably long time.
(Also, this McRuffian makes it clear that he’s ready to take a bite out of crime anytime someone deigns to unchain him):
No one does anything. Because Nicholas isn’t really a “villain”–he’s a massively overdetermined symbol of Woolfolk/Halvard’s isolationism and Millie/Granddad’s lingering paranoia. Vidor cuts back to the chained dog EVERY time Nicholas gets out of line–an extraordinary directorial gambit which exposes, by analogy, the psychological restraints upon Nicholas’ victims.
It gets so bad that our “hero” actually sails off and leaves Millie + the old man to fend for themselves against their tormentor.
“Solitude–and Freedom!” That’s what I’d call my Vidor book, if I was gonna write one. These two concepts–and the relationship between them–form the axis upon which the director’s oeuvre turns. He’ll be exploring these things–and continually reassessing their respective meanings–for the next 35 years. And, of course, he won’t be alone–after all, solitude and freedom make up the marbled gobstopper that’s been stuck in the ideological craw of America since the Puritans came to town.
Anyway, some time later, on his beloved open seas, Woolfolk has an epiphany of his own, dramatized through a flashback to the moment that this man gave up on intersubjectivity, followed by some very Jack-Knife Man style astral projection therapy.
Unfortunately, they’ve waited so long that Grandpa Stope is completely unsalvagable
However, in keeping with the film’s oneiric logic, the final bite MUST be administered by that hound. And so it is, when the beast bursts loose and catches up with Nicholas on the pier (while he’s in the midst of blasting holes into the hull of the Yankee–and crewman Halvard).
Vidor’s version of this canine comeuppance does not disappoint.
Woolfolk, Millie and a badly-injured Halvard make good their escape. Grandpa dies and is consumed by the flames which destroy the decrepit Stope manse. Millie goes from fearful girl to navigational hero when she gets the Yankee past the sandbar, against overwhelming odds
However, the director never lets us forget that the hellhound (who gets a lot of howling screen time) has slipped back into the mix–and he ain’t Rin Tin Tin. Who knows what will come of this freedom (and of its psychological correlatives in the people aboard the Yankee)?