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In my series thus far, I’ve described King Vidor as the cinema’s preeminent mediator between ideality and the quotidian – a Plotinus/Montaigne (to borrow, once again, James Russell Lowell’s description of Emerson) who, through some miracle of epistemological deep focus, always manages to keep the subjective and the sociological in the shot (and without forcing a Capraesque showdown between these two seemingly incompatible perceptual modes). Nowhere is this more true than in The Crowd, a film which many consider to be his supreme achievement. Set and shot (wherever possible) within the mechanistic whirl of late-1920s New York City, The Crowd shows Vidor the 20th Century Transcendentalist truly engaging, for the first time in his career, with the realities (and the undergirding fantasies) of life in a consumer capitalist society.

Where most of Vidor’s earlier films gave us open air auteurs working within and against the constraints of their social and physical environments to shape their autobiopics on the fly, The Crowd explores the ideological foundations of “idealism”; and without, I would argue, in any way cheapening the experiences of the visionary in question (James Murray’s “John Sims”). That’s John in the film still above, poised on the first step of a double-decker streetcar, quietly contemplating the mysteries of wife-to-be Mary (Eleanor Boardman)’s ass and existence as she makes the climb in front of him.

It’s all part of an extended courtship sequence that helps to place/ensnare these people just as fully within the context/web of their society as Vidor’s more famously virtuoso camera stalk of “#137: John Sims” through the skyscraperscapes and white-collar alleys of densest, brightest America (I’ll just inundate your mind with those images right now, since I know they’re in there anyway, before getting back to John and Mary’s long date).

Vidor’s greatest feat in this film is to create a believable protagonist who is at once absolutely typical (of white middle-class masculinity, at any rate: it should never be forgotten that John belongs to a group that occupied a privileged place within his society – and continues to do so) and utterly convinced of his own atypicality (which, according to the prescient logic of the piece, is what makes him absolutely typical). John Sims is both victim and beneficiary of the American Dream (plenty of his fellow citizens weren’t deriving any benefits at all).

To borrow from the script of Frank Capra’s thematically-related (but tonally very different) 1941 masterpiece Meet John Doe, he’s “the man that all of the ads are written for”

(Later on, of course, they will be written by him — at least once

and on him — possibly for the rest of his life)

(Returning to Capra and Robert Riskin’s script) “He keeps the books” (other John Simses are flying the planes and driving the buses…)

“And when a cop yells: ‘Stand back there you!’ He means [John Sims]”

Yes, John is that elusively ubiquitous quarry of politicians, pollsters, preachers, pundits and publicists everywhere (in our “mass culture” society), the “Average Man.” The sort of guy who, in his classified personal ad (or OK Cupid profile) would undoubtedly describe himself as having “his own of way seeing things” and an “offbeat sense of humour”.

And, as the film begins, he’s about to fall in love with Ms. Average Flapper, 1928.

Their courtship is pointedly banal. He puts her in stitches with some of the least inspired comedy routines ever committed to celluloid (the ol’ smile/frown magic face eraser game), and then dazzles her with some condescending snark directed at a hapless sandwich board clown:

that’s a terrible French translation, by the way… “malin” means “scheming” or, at the very least, “crafty”

To this point in the film, Mary hasn’t done anything except laugh a bit goofily and look like Eleanor Boardman (which, admittedly, is no small thing), but somehow John finds it in his thoroughly mediated heart to utter this declaration as they glide through the balmy city air, looking down upon the masses, from the rather crowded roof of their streetcar:

Yes, this is Vidorian sociology in action. But it’s so much more than that. Unlike John, the director is not condescending to his subject. And, as cliched as their sparse dialogue is, there is no denying the reality of the bond that is growing between these characters. Time and again, during the course of this film, Vidor will surprise us by purposefully melting the icy edge of his proto-Adornian cultural critique by capturing the inarticulate warmth generated by the physical and emotional propinquity of these living, relating bodies whose title cards have been hijacked by the sloganeering cant of commercial copy. John and Mary’s montage/date plays out with the ruthless efficiency and foreordained cultural logic of something that’s been itinerized by some combination wedding planner/urban travel agent. And yet, there’s no denying that it looks like fun!

The whole sequence is a proto-Busby Berkeleyan delight – equal parts inspiration, mechanization and sniggering patriarchal glee.

It’s fantastically telling that, once the couple reaches the end of their culturally signposted journey to the honeymoon sleeping car, their romance hits a bit of snag. The pop taglines and jingles that have scored their lives to this point simply don’t describe what happens after you “neck” and “pop the question”. Simultaneously prurient and prudish, the advertizing culture of the 1920s crept as close to the sexual realm as was politically feasible, and then left the rest up to their increasingly dependent audience’s imagination.

Ah sweet liberty!

These Waldorf and Statler types know where it’s at, but when it comes to sex, John and Mary are left high and unlubricated by their mass cultural education.

Fortunately, they get their respective mojos back by tapping into the ferociously sublime “natural” energy of their era’s most ardently cherished (and prescribed) sexual metaphor: Niagara Falls. Here again, Vidor identifies a multi-layered cultural logic at work, and involves our critical faculties and emotions in the process as it unfolds. We shake our heads as they seem bent on seeing the falls merely as a chastely beautiful backdrop and then cheer as they begin to take on some of its more electrifying properties, turning the postcard “photo op” into something more akin to a “French postcard” tableau. “Naturally”, this is exactly what is supposed to happen – the brochures just can’t mention said fucking by name.

I’ll be back later in the week with Part II of my look at The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me! (And please, feel free to comment, quibble and flat out disagree with me! I’m here to converse with people!)

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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!

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King Vidor’s Truth and Illusion (1964–no IMDB entry!!!) treats the viewer to the remarkable spectacle of an artist erecting his own tombstone.

That’s the truth.

Fortunately, Vidor’s oeuvre will always be around to ensure that the feeble speculation contained within this film never becomes anything more than an illusory epitaph for the great director.

Truth and Illusion (subtitled An Introduction To Metaphysics) is, first and foremost, a declaration of creative bankruptcy–and should never be confused with an “interpretive key” to King Vidor’s narrative works. However, it does not follow that it is irrelevant to a discussion of the films. Much like Frank Capra’s rose-coloured memoir The Name Above the Title, this 25-minute 16mm piece gives us direct access to intellectual temptations (in metastasized form) that must have been twinkling away within the director’s mind throughout his career. And yet, there is no denying that this cheap, watered-down Platonism (and we’ll get to the “substance” of the ideas in a moment) played an immensely important role in shaping Vidor’s art, so long as it remained in a productive tension with his gut-level perceptions. Vidor’s Transcendental tendencies give even his most “overwrought” melodramas a kind of balance that they could not otherwise possess–in effect, the naive egotism contained within T & I had lent Vidor the courage to dive so completely into the subjective experience of figures like Stella Dallas, Ruby Gentry and Rosa Moline. In the end, it seems, this courage (like aging muscles) turned to flabby, airy thoughts–but we did get 30 years’ worth of fascinating films out of the guy before it happened.

That’s a good trade.

Emerson, in one of his more T & I-ish stupors (F.O. Matthiessen called it “the optative mood”), would have called it “Compensation.”

Truth and Illusion: An Introduction To Metaphysics is structured as a kind of catechism, with various mentally deficient interlocutors seeking guidance from our narrator, down-home guru King Vidor.

Early in the film, after a few meandering notes about the ways in which film stills take on the illusion of movement, we get this exchange:

Dumbass: “But what do these exposées have to do with our daily life?”

Vidor: “The basis for happiness is knowing what is true–thereby dispelling the illusion of what is untrue.”

WHAT?

The entire self-satisfied film, a guided tour of Simon pure Idealism throughout the centuries, is constructed upon this premise. For whatever reason, Vidor takes comfort from the notion that all reality is subjectively constructed (i.e. Bishop Berkeley‘s conclusion that there is no way to prove a world beyond the confines of the human senses). For serious intellectuals, this insight can be the beginning of thought and art –Existentialism would be impossible without it. For Vidor, in 1964, it has become an endpoint: “Life is what you make of it–so just think of it as good.”

The whole world of the mind is your playground, so use as many letter As and number 5s as you want!

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Exciting stuff, I’m sure, but King, what about Stella Dallas? Is she just imagining patriarchy? What about the motherfuckin’ Holocaust?

It’s very telling that, when Vidor starts namechecking his influences near the end of Truth and Illusion, he goes from Plato to Berkeley to Kant to Mary Baker Eddy. The whole piece is very New Agey and Laws of Attraction-y and this recourse to the founder of Christian Science comes as no surprise. It also makes sense that Vidor skipped over Ralph Waldo Emerson here–because, while Waldo did have many Christian Science-type moments, he also wrote stuff like “Days” and “Experience.” Emerson, at his best, was a Plotinus-Montaigne (James Russell Lowell did a greater thing for criticism than he knew, when he formulated this jest)–equally attentive to infinities and particularities.

Vidor, in his prime, looked at the world through a similarly stereoscopic lens.

In Truth and Illusion, he publicly shut his eye for detail, leaving a very distorted picture in its wake.

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Next time–Bud’s Recruit (1918).

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Keep those curtains wide open. There’ll be plenty to see (and discuss) around here for the next little while. The topic? The films of King Vidor.

Aficionados know all about this guy’s snakes and ladders journey across the first perilous century of film criticism. One of the most revered figures in Hollywood during the 1920s, Vidor’s rep probably took an even bigger hit than Frank Borzage’s during the latter stages of his own lifetime (1894-1982).

It’s not hard to see why.

For one thing, during the classical (sound) era, the director gravitated increasingly toward the kind of no holds barred melodrama that critics in search of cultural capital felt duty-bound to deride. Today, looking back from the other side of the “high-/low- brow” divide, we understand that the people who savaged Vidor’s “bourgeois sentimentality” (usually expressed in the same gendered terms used to marginalize ANY art centered upon the emotional life of the modern subject) were far more trapped within the middle-class looking glass than they knew. To me, nothing smacks more of “false consciousness” than the pallid observations of critical theory. I mean, really, how you gonna have a revolution without Ruby Gentry or Rosa Moline (or the intense dissatisfaction they represent)?

Another major aspect of the “Vidor problem” is the director’s wild rightward shift across the political spectrum, during the 1940s and 1950s. HOW did the director of The Crowd and Our Daily Bread wind up making An American Romance? It’s a real puzzler–at least on the surface. Not a good idea just to dismiss it either–not if you really want to understand what the hell happened to the country as a whole, after the end of the Great Depression.

And you know, it’s exactly the kind of problem that a student of Transcendentalism (and its effects upon American aesthetic and political culture) might be able to do something with. That’s me. Also, as luck would have it, Vidor was enough of an intellectual to proclaim his Emersonianism in a number of places–most notably in his aesthetic autobiography (A Tree Is A Tree) and in the 1964 documentary Truth and Illusion: An Introduction To Metaphysics. So the stage is set–and (thanks to the magic of avi files) I now have access to ALL of the sound films and a large percentage of the silents (including all of the key entries from Vidor’s glory days at MGM under Thalberg).

So we’re gonna do it. Chronologically, I think (with an introductory piece on Truth and Illusion to kick things off). I’d love to promise one entry every week, but I won’t go quite that far. This blog is never gonna be completely stable. I’m sure King Vidor would approve of that.

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