Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Gilbert’

Bardelys the Magnificent was King Vidor’s third John Gilbert film in a row, following on the heels of The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926), but this is the first of the three that deserves the dubious label of “star vehicle”. Based on a novel by historical romance author Rafael Sabatini (author of books that would someday be adapted into deathless classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), it’s a swashbuckling adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition. Long considered a “lost film” (MGM was forced, by the terms of their agreement with Sabatini, to destroy all of their copies of the movie when their distribution rights lapsed in 1936), the piece was rediscovered (minus one reel) in a French vault a few years ago. But for my money, it’s still a lost film – or, at any rate, largely a lost opportunity for its director.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad film — far from it, in fact — but there’s not a whole lot  in Bardelys the Magnificent to suggest the guiding hand of the  cinematic Transcendentalist/feminist whose career I’ve been examining. You can’t get your way all of the time, not in Studio Age Hollywood anyway, and watching John Gilbert smile and frown and careen his way through these lush MGM sets and crowds, you can almost picture King Vidor closing his mind’s eye and thinking of The Crowd. Still, there are “Vidorian elements” to be found, if you exert yourself! I’ve argued that all of Vidor’s protagonists are “artists” of one sort or another – and usually not the sort that paints, sings, writes or dances. Call them willful visionaries if you like. Better still, call them open air directors. That description fits our Bardelys (John Gilbert), who delights in staging reality dramas for his own private amusement (with a dash of noblesse oblige in the bargain).

Case in point, the seemingly sordid little affair that takes up much of the first reel. Gilbert is introduced as a Don Juan type, a silver tongued seducer who deflects his ladies’ legitimate concerns with the formula phrase: “Dark/Fair/Red-Headed(?) Enchantress, can you doubt me?” Apparently they can’t, despite the photographic proof (see above) that, as a counterfeit lover, he isn’t exactly a method actor. He always has one eye trained on the world beyond the stage – a wise move, it would seem, in a land of irate sword-wielding husbands.

Vidor and Gilbert never ask us to take this fight seriously (look at that smile), but for two of the three people involved in the melee, it is indeed a life and death matter. The wife (our erstwhile “dark enchantress”) has (in the parlance of the times) thrown away her “honor” and the husband has had his own dignity snatched from him by a man who doesn’t even seem to have had the decency to have been genuinely present at the scene of the crime. Nor is he really inhabiting this fight scene; he’s hovering above it, making sure the actors hit their marks, trying to come up with a good dramatic twist that will save him from the boring task of executing another cuckold.

He finds it by ribaldly reinterpretating the husband’s awkward lunges as the valiant strokes of virile and worthy lover:

The husband takes this as a compliment (although he doesn’t stop lunging), and the wife jumps back on the marriage bandwagon. Soon, everyone is in on the joke, and Gilbert blesses their reunion by giving them the good-natured bum’s rush:

This is Bardelys’ solipsistic habitus at the beginning of the film. Like the Jack-Knife Man puttering away with the clocks on his barge, our privileged protagonist busies himself by toying with the delicate mechanism of 17th century French society – and he even fixes a few things, occasionally. Of course, it’s the plot’s job to force him out of this comfort zone and into a more challenging directorial assignment – and it achieves that end beautifully, due in large part to the (mostly unwitting) efforts of Roxalanne de Lavedan, whom we first meet in an appealing conference with her cat.

Played by the lustrous Eleanor Boardman (previously seen in Wine of Youth), the director clearly wants to make something interesting of this character. In a truly Vidorian piece, she would have vaulted onto center stage and stayed there. Unfortunately, that enterprise is almost completely steamrolled by the inane workings of Sabatini’s mechanistic plot (not to mention the callow logic of the Fairbanks formula itself), which thoroughly violates the integrity of Boardman’s character, reducing her to a carrot/stick to be tossed back and forth between Bardelys and his “rival in fashion and love” Chatellerault (played by the menacingly mugging Roy D’Arcy):

However, Boardman does impress in her initial scene, rebuffing the evil man’s offer of marriage with beguiling disdain:

“Will I MARRY you?”

When he threatens her family with violent reprisals (it seems they belong to the aristocratic faction that strove to oppose the consolidation of French state power under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu during the first half of the 17th century – we’re in Three Musketeers territory here), she flashes even more of that proto-Ruby Gentry steel, replying “I had only disliked you before, now I must despise you.” Her radiant self-possession is so palpable that it sends Chatellerault reeling – quite literally, as he backs into a snarling pratfall that soon becomes the talk of a very small-minded kingdom.

Vidor’s disgust with class-ridden Europe comes across in every tittering tableau:

Only in this vapid social environment could anything as foolish as the film’s most artificial plot device have come into being. Bardelys and his pals are having a good laugh at Chatellerault’s expense, until the latter turns their jeers against them, demanding, in effect, that our protagonist put his manhood where his mouth is. Chatellerault is no great shakes with the ladies, but he knows his way around this fleur-de-lys-scented locker room, cunningly manipulating confirmed bachelor Gilbert into wagering his entire fortune that he can sweep la belle Boardman off her feet and marry her within three months. I have no idea how this scene plays out in the novel, but I suspect that Sabatini’s Bardelys is more a victim of own hubris than of peer pressure. Vidor’s film communicates a very different (and very characteristic) horror of inauthenticity, as the net of social expectation slowly ensnares Gilbert’s will. Ordered to remain at court by King Louis XIII (played by future talking equine impresario Arthur Lubin!), Gilbert exclaims: “my life is yours, Sire, but Bardelys’ honor is his own”, but the truth is something closer to the reverse. For Vidor, “honor” is a monstrous joint stock company with too many interfering ninnies on its board of directors. The rest of the movie will largely concern itself with examining the dire consequences of signing away one’s right to (as Emerson would say) “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim”.

For me, it’s the strongest sequence in the film.

Many finely crafted scenes, detailing the misadventures of our hero as he goes undercover (as a dead anti-Bourbon leader named Lesperon) to defy the King’s orders and insinuate himself into the good graces of the rebellious De Lavedan family, follow upon its heels, but, for Vidor’s purposes, Bardelys is in prison from the moment he signs Chatellerault’s document – it just takes the plot about an hour to catch up:

During this span, Boardman doesn’t get a chance to do much more than contort her mood and her mug to suit the haphazard dictates of Sabatini’s snakes-and-ladders plot, but she and Gilbert do perform well together in a lavishly shot love scene on the river:

Those obscurantist leaves make nice stand-ins for the problematic elements of this harebrained tale, which effectively prevent Boardman from ever truly making common cause with Gilbert in his quest for subjectivity. She does launch one spirited counterstrike against the moronic exigencies of the plot, when she ambushes the still-incognito Bardelys (and the entire genre) with some impromptu sacralizing before a self-serve altar in the wilderness:

But this is a swashbuckler, not a love story, and we’d never have gotten our swordfights and derring-do if Gilbert had simply come clean with Boardman in this scene. Instead, he pulls away from her, setting into motion a chain of events that will eventually call for her to petulantly denounce Bardelys as a traitor in the presence of the King’s soldiers. This leads to an amusing courtroom scene in which Gilbert is tried for the crimes of the man he replaced en route to his rendezvous with inauthentic romance. Bardelys, it seems, isn’t magnificent enough for anyone in the court to recognize him – except, of course, for head magistrate Chatellerault, who fairly basks in his rival’s plight when the latter begs him to set this question of mistaken identity straight.

“Moi?”

 This is amusing stuff, and the saturnine D’Arcy gets a lot of mileage out of his Mephistophelean position as the contractual owner of Bardelys’ soul. Not to worry though, after a brief brush with imprisonment and an abortive ride to the gallows, our man Faust breaks loose through a series of brilliantly filmed stunts that stand in for his vertiginous escape from the hell of other peoples’ expectations.

Back in charge of his identity and his destiny, Bardelys gives the devil his due, ceding his property to Chatellerault, since it is the latter who has managed to marry Roxalanne (she accepts his second proposal in exchange for his false promise to pardon her true love). Then Bardelys gets back everything he lost (including Eleanor Boardman, whom he can now woo as a purified version of his former self) by shaming his antagonist into falling on his sword (by defeating him in single combat and by making sure his pal the King knows the full extent of Chatellerault’s villainy).

It’s a thoroughly magnificent win-win-win scenario, and, thankfully, there won’t be much of that nonsense in the truly Vidorian films on our horizon.

Our next entry is The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me!

Read Full Post »

All of King Vidor’s films deal with artists (people who transmute the materials furnished by life into something far more personal than life, properly speaking, ever is), but La Boheme is the first one to be set in the artistic milieu–and the director doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Oh there’s plenty of charming bonhomie and aestheticized “suffering for art” on display–but Vidor pulls out all of the stops to show us exactly what this “boy’s own adventure” into “poverty” is founded upon–i.e. genuine (and inevitable) female pain. Implicit in all of this is a potent critique of the Artist/Muse trope.

We begin with a familiar scene from “Bohemia”–artists sketching a model–interrupted by a visit from the landlord:

The film sticks to this whimsical tone whenever it deals with the never-too-serious plight of its core brothers-in-arts (led by John Gilbert–and featuring Anagramsci fave Edward Everett Horton in a fairly early role). I mean, really, how serious can life get for these guys?

The very bearable lightness of their being is driven home by these little sing-along intertitles:

No, they don’t get paid much… Luckily, they always find some monkey to do the tough work for them:

And when their stomachs rumble, there’s always a banquet to be had, in the pit of the building (a classic sequence):

Lady Bountiful is Musette (art bro Marcel’s girlfriend), played by Big Parade alum Renee Adoree. We’ll get back to her–and the source of her bounty–later.

Poverty is quite a different thing for seamstress Mimi–both more exhausting:

and more abject:

The actress charged with walking these diverse and difficult roads? Lilian Gish, of course:

She enters the art-boys’ world in pretty standard melodrama fashion–they extend the dubious benefits of their “protection” to the hard-up woman of virtue (who steadfastly refuses to pay the landlord with her body). Unfortunately for Mimi, she looks so fetching as she warms herself at the heater that she is pretty much doomed to become muse-fuel for playwright John Gilbert’s fire:


From there, it doesn’t take us long to get here:

And after that, you know her fate is sealed.

However, the interesting thing–as I have been stressing in this series of posts–is the way Vidor finds a route to modern psychology and radical social critique within this  rather old-fashioned narrative framework. From the moment Mimi (Gish) confesses her love to Rodolphe (Gilbert)–and their powerful romantic scene IS fueled by her confession of love, rather than by his inevitable attraction to her–the film shifts drastically in tone, becoming a scathing analysis of what it really means to be (in the hackneyed terminology of yesteryear) the “great woman behind the great man”.

Yes, when Gish kisses Gilbert (becoming his muse), she accepts full responsibility for making a “great artist” of him. “So what?” you might ask. Isn’t that a passive, reactionary position for a female subject? Well, I would answer–“yes and no”.  Reactionary? Definitely. Passive. Anything but. It’s hard to remain muse-ical. In fact, as Vidor’s film shows us, Mimi works much harder–and produces a far more powerful dramatic construct (although only we and possibly one other person are privy to this fact)–than the nominal “artist” of the piece.

How does Gilbert reach his apotheosis? He sits around, jots down notes, takes money (which he thinks he is earning) and looks up (or through the window) at Mimi, whenever he loses his fix on “beauty”.

Meanwhile, Gish fights a war on more fronts than you can shake a phallus at.

She must remain “pure” (i.e. available–in body and mind–only to Gilbert).

She must remain “beautiful” (i.e. well-rested, well-nourished, well-dressed).

She must resist every offer of “assistance” that patriarchal society makes (and she gets quite a few–especially from that damned landlord and this syphilitic count):

In the end, Gish finds it impossible to satisfy all of these imperatives. [Vidor’s greatest films generally give us protagonists–particularly female protagonists–who find imaginative (and by that, I mean aesthetic) solutions to “no-win” situations]. She discovers, very early in the relationship, that Gilbert’s sinecure at a Dog and Cat Fancier’s magazine has dissolved (due entirely to his negligence)–and she elects to fill the financial void herself (by seamstressing herself to the breaking point, working round the clock to earn the money Gilbert thinks he is getting for the little pet articles he tosses off, whenever he can tear himself away from his supposedly magnificent play). By eschewing sleep, Gish courts disaster in a number of ways. For one thing, she contracts tuberculosis. Worse (in her mind), she’s looking more haggard than a “muse” ought to (a female friend lays this out for us–“if you lose your looks, he’ll stop loving you). Things get so bad that she clutches wildly for a shortcut to the success she desires for her artist–agreeing to go on a double date with the Count (who says he “knows a producer”), Musette, and some other rich guy (presumably the one who pays for the banquets she lays out, beneath that hole in the garret floor). When she returns, all hell breaks loose–as Gilbert has discovered that he’s been unemployed for five weeks, and assumes that she’s been playing hooker on him.

What follows is a monstrous scene of masculine egotism unleashed. We are forced to watch our likable small fry artist transform into a dick of unparalleled dimensions–berating Mimi for finding a way to keep him in food while he “creates”, and assuming that she’s done it by allowing others to ravish her body, rather than by submitting that very same frail form to the ravages of insane overwork. Only the long-overdue realization of her consumptive condition puts an end to his petulant (and physically abusive) tirade–at which point the repentant Gilbert puts Gish to bed and runs off to summon a doctor.

Of course, in order to remain true to her muse-conception, Gish must take her tortured body and run, thus saving Gilbert from wasting his chi powers on a lot of unplaywrightlike nursemaiding. In the bargain (the intertitles tell us), Gilbert’s remorse over his insane treatment of this extraordinary woman actually inspires him to create a “producible” drama! Vidor doesn’t waste much time telling that story. His camera makes a beeline for the true passion narrative of La Boheme–Mimi’s sufferings as muse-in-exile. Gish and Vidor go all-out in these sequences, and here I have to allow the film to speak for itself:


banned from the Big Parade to "Art"

It’s a litany of martyrdom with a radical message–the reverse of Gibsonian torture porn. Vidor traces the development of a gendered idea of muse-as-martyr in Gish’s mind, and then follows through as she makes all of her nightmarish dreams come true. A world that offers women nothing but this vast wasteland of stations of the cross needs a whole new slate of channels in a hurry. I would argue that you could interpret much of the director’s subsequent oeuvre as a series of pilots for a new model of female subjectivity…

Finally, Gilbert’s play (who knows or cares what it’s about?) opens–and what a triumph it is! (Actually, it is–but Vidor’s camera says otherwise)

And, as luck (and ill-health) will have it, Gish finds her way back to her lover, just in time to congratulate him (the film, of course, congratulates her) on his success–and die, knowing that the tableau in his mind, at the climactic moment of the narrative, is not his worldly success, but HER declaration of love for him, at the midpoint of the film (and here we get another Vidor flashback–every Vidor silent seems to have ’em!–to the sun-drenched kiss scene). The overall effect of Vidor’s subjective reorchestration (which stresses the fatal demands of the muse/artist structure over the traditionally aestheticized function of the “tragic muse”) punctures Puccini’s platitudes and weaponizes the weepiness of the finale.

We fade out on this brilliant sequence with Adoree and Gish (who else but Musette could understand the true nature–and terrible necessity–of Mimi’s trajectory?)

next time: Bardelys the Magnificent!



Read Full Post »

The Big Parade (1925)

Okay, so maybe it’s a tiny bit of a stretch, but I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of Renée Adorée (as The Big Parade‘s Melissande) and Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty” (“Leading the People”)

I’ve been calling King Vidor a “Romantic” and a “Transcendentalist”–and this exercise might help to clarify what I mean by those terms. The Delacroix painting, of course, is one of the quintessential products of European Romanticism–a multifarious movement which exalted human “spirit” (and/or “Nature”) over the dead letter of conformity, legalism and (in its extreme form) “culture”. Perhaps the most important corollary of Romanticism’s quarrel with the school of thought that had preceded it upon the intellectual stage was a tendency to celebrate “the particular” at the expense of that sine qua non of Enlightenment Rationalism–“the universal”.  I’m sure that sounds quite radical, and in a few cases (Shelley, Victor Hugo) it actually was–however, as the 19th century progressed, mainline Romanticism definitely hardened into the aesthetic fist of  Old World reactionary politics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Hegel and derivatives–except for Marx, of course). This occurred because the particular “particular” that most of these folks latched onto was a Frankenstein Monster of “national character” defined by language, scientistic theories about “blood” and pre-Enlightenment Myth. And so in the above painting, “Liberty” rises from the collective breast of the “people” and spurs them to some triumphant realization of the ideal French state.

There was no shortage of this type of Romantic in the “New World” either–especially in the South, where people like William Gilmore Simms hearkened back to a fantasy of Medieval Order that they believed had been “perfected” by that region’s “peculiar institution”. Proslavery romanticism invented a nation (of “whiteness”) within the nation, and gloried in its unique destiny. The really interesting thing, though, is that (with the disturbing exception of Edgar Allan Poe–an anti-democratic departure unto himself) the most vital products of American Romanticism depart markedly from the European pattern. My undergraduate thesis (written more than 10 years ago now!) speculated upon the sources of this divergence. The short answer? If you want to celebrate the distinctiveness of a nation that was brought into being by Enlightenment theory, you wind up clinging to a belief in universal human rights AS the leading “characteristic” of your “particular” heritage. Hence the paradoxical title of the piece: “Enlightened Romantics”. So what are you saying Fiore? America=”good”; Europe=”bad”. Certainly not! However, I do think it’s important to acknowledge this divergence–and to take its implications as seriously as possible. Each intellectual tradition offers its own strikingly different network of roads to (imagined) Utopia and (very real) Hell (and to a whole lot of places in between). As a weird latter-day Gramscian (hence the goofy non-anagrammatic title of my blog), I believe that leftist thinkers who cherish any minuscule hope of steering the ship in the direction of social justice must engage popular culture head on (Adorno is my bête noire; well, Adorno and Ronald McDonald).

Enter King Vidor (and his version of “liberty”–who must remain on the sidelines, while “the people”–exemplified by an American doughboy–clash senselessly). The King is dead (and therefore not making movies any more)–but I would argue that his oeuvre embodies the paradoxical Hollywood/Transcendental zeitgeist (which lives on–for good or for ill) better than anyone else’s. Moreover, his career stretches across such a wildly oscillating chunk of the 20th century–and was thus susceptible to such an extreme range of societal influences–that his auteur‘s progress toward the blinkered paradise that is Truth and Illusion provides a unique laboratory for the student of American cultural history.

I’m bringing this stuff into play with The Big Parade because this is where the King ascended to the vacant throne of D.W. Griffith and assumed the mantle of “America’s Auteur” (long before the term was invented, of course). By 1925, Vidor was tired of making movies that played one week stands and disappeared forever (until the advent of TCM, that is) and he made this fact known to his new boss (MGM’s Irving Thalberg). As most of you reading this will know, The Big Parade changed all of that, becoming the biggest moneymaker of the 1920s, creating the template for every anti-war film that followed it (without ever being explicitly “anti-war” in the way that, say, Milestone’s All Quiet is), initiating the meteoric rise and fall of star John Gilbert and giving Vidor the “prestige capital” to get away with making the inherently unprofitable The Crowd 3 years later.

It’s a major leap from the chamber melodramatics of Wild Oranges (which had 5 cast members) to BP”s grand canvas–and there are casualties along the way to the battlefield. Stylistically, this is pure Vidor–except for the numerous digressions into knockabout “comedy” that came from the Laurence Stallings original. However, thematically, The Big Parade is a real oddity among Vidor’s films–giving us a protagonist who generally seems content to be carried along by the whims of fate (having no vision of his own to oppose to the reality in which he finds himself). Actually, James Apperson (Gilbert’s character) reminds me a great deal of our old pal Reggie, from Bud’s Recruit:

Remember me?

and that’s pretty strange, because Reggie was NOT the protagonist of Bud’s Recruit.

With the exception of The Crowd, I’m more interested in Vidor’s “minor” films–but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to talk about in The Big Parade. For one thing, there’s the title itself, which sounds festive, but which is actually synonymous with these funeral processions:

Talk about marching to the beat of the same ol’ drummer! Henry David Thoreau would be appalled! And, so, clearly, is Vidor. If The Big Parade is an anti-war film, it’s not because it’s a pacifist film, it’s because, in good Transcendentalist fashion, it deplores the regimentation of army life. Sure, there’s brutality galore on the screen, but the extended battle sequence actually hinges upon Gilbert’s trenchbound interrogative epiphany: “Orders? Who’s fighting this war? Men or Orders?” The film is pretty clear about the answer–“Orders” all the way. As soon as the people we’ve spent the first hour with leave their camp, they almost cease to be “men” at all–they become merely the undead agents of the inscrutable metronome of “foreign policy”. (And you’ll notice that we never, ever get a sense that anyone knows WHY they are fighting in France… no “make the world safe for democracy” nonsense in this script! These people are there to march at machine guns and hope–not even TRY–to survive. That’s it.) Vidor is the great prophet of subjectivity in the cinema–and the film’s most carefully planned out scenes give us hundreds/thousands of human beings drained of every trace of that quality; the reified elements of a Busby Berkeley spectacle:

None of this would have anything like the impact that it does if we hadn’t just spent a reel or two watching Gilbert (literally) barrel into something like a sense of self, thanks to this encounter French peasant girl Adorée:

After this bizarre first meeting, she (significantly) recognizes him by a ratty tassel around his right leg (the one he does not lose in the battle):

Their courtship begins as something that is played for laughs, but gradually progresses into an almost-Borzagean fortress against the cosmos. Gilbert’s romance-awakened personhood becomes synonymous with the candle that Adorée holds in the fourth still below (and which Slim extinguishes with spit, when the troops are sent to participate in the big show-stopper on the front):



After the call-up, Adorée becomes the sole keeper of this flame of subjectivity. The “only light in the world”, as the American exceptionalists used to like to say, during the darkest days of the next World War. If you accept this interpretation, then nothing which happens in Belleau Wood actually matters. All of that celebrated battle footage–the reach for the flower (a jauntier precursor of the reach for the buttlerfly in All Quiet)–the deaths of Slim and Bull–the scene in the trench with the dying German (which also has its analogue in Milestone’s film)–Gilbert’s pointless act of  “heroism” (which is presented as pure vengeance)–and even the nonsense with Gilbert’s “cheering family” and the New York end of another (equally dead) “big parade”–ALL of it is just a subjective flatline between this goodbye:

And this hello…. “Liberty reunited with the (man of the) people”… And not “leading” him anywhere but to bed, if my guess is correct!

Here again, this actually seems more like Borzage than Vidor, with two strong visionaries bringing an improbable dream to life by catching reality in a passionate crossfire. (Generally, in Vidor, you only get ONE visionary–often paired with an unworthy romantic partner who becomes aligned with a fate that must be resisted at all costs). All in all, I find The Big Parade less compelling–as an example of what this director is all about–than something like Beyond the Forest or Ruby Gentry…but we’ll get to them, in due course…

As Charles Silver notes:

For Marxist critics, The Big Parade was anathema, since Vidor “centered his comment upon the war in an absurd love affair between a French peasant girl and an American doughboy while men were being blown to bits.” What this writer for Experimental Cinema didn’t seem to realize was that war for Vidor, as for most human beings, is precisely about love affairs and their impossibility under conditions of combat. The tragedy of war is the interruption not of dialectic, but of love and of life.

Absolutely. That’s the director’s position here. Implicit in that position is a characteristic horror of any kind of collective undertaking (which the huge number of Americans who keep voting against health care will certainly understand). This is something that will come up quite a lot (as you might expect from the director of The Fountainhead!) However, it is worth noting that, somewhere between this film and the Rand adaptation, Vidor will also give us perhaps the most astonishing example of subjectivized spectacle ever filmed–in Our Daily Bread. The Vidor oeuvre–and the principles of transcendental melodrama which animate it–contains…well, if not multitudes, then, at least, an unexpected range of attitudes toward the relationship between the radical subject, shared “reality” and the possibility of justice.

That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: