“In my opinion, the motion picture is the greatest medium of expression ever invented. It embraces all the other arts. The films that have the greatest unity, the greatest overall strength, and give the most satisfaction to the viewer, have been those in which a guiding hand was imposed in every section of the film’s many divisions.“King Vidor
King Vidor (1894 – 1982) died of a heart attack on November 1, 1982. The previous weekend he and his longtime friend, and former lover in their early careers, Colleen Moore had driven up to San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst‘s “Castle” to watch home movies made when they had been Hearst’s guests there, 60 years before.
Vidor was a film director, producer, and screenwriter whose 67-year filmmaking career spanned the silent and sound eras. His works are mostly vivid, humane depictions of social issues. Considered an auteur director, Vidor worked in many genres and allowed the subject matter to determine the style, often pressing the limits of filmmaking conventions.
His most outstanding and successful film in the silent era is The Big Parade (1925). Vidor’s sound films of the 1940s and early 1950s represent his richest period, including Northwest Passage (1940), An American Romance (1944), and Duel In The Sun (1946).
His dramatic depictions of the American West showed it as a sinister force where his characters struggle for survival and redemption.
Vidor’s earlier films tend to identify with the common people in a collective struggle, whereas his later works place individualists at the center of his narratives.
Considered an “actors director” many of his cast members received Academy Award nominations or awards: Wallace Beery, Robert Donat, Barbara Stanwyck, Jennifer Jones, Anne Shirley, and Lillian Gish.
Vidor was nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Director without a single win. In 1979 was awarded an Honorary Academy Award, and a Screen Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1957.
His work sometimes went uncredited, including the black-and-white “Kansas” sequences in The Wizard Of Oz (1939), including the scene where Judy Garland sings Over The Rainbow.
Vidor’s first sound film was Hallelujah (1929), a rural tragedy with a documentary-like depiction of Black sharecroppers in the South. The cast includes Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney and William Fontaine, whose characters are part of a love-triangle that leads to revenge and murder. Vidor’s innovative integration of sound into the scenes, includes musical numbers featuring Jazz and Gospel.
Vidor, a third-generation Texan, encountered Black workers employed at his father’s sawmill when he was kid. He knew their music, and he avoided reducing his characters to “Uncle Tom” stereotypes and overt racism in D. W. Griffith‘s Birth Of A Nation (1915), even if his depictions lack nuance.
The Black sharecroppers emphasize class rather than race. The film is a human tragedy of sexual desire and revenge contrasted with community solidarity and redemption.
Unusual for the era, it was filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas. Hallelujah was one of the first all-Black films by a major studio. It was intended for a general audience and was so risky a venture by MGM that they required Vidor to invest his own salary in the production. Vidor wanted to present a relatively non-stereotypical view of African-American life.
Vidor’s first sound film, it combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. The film contains two scenes of “trucking”, a dance craze where the dancers make movements backward and forward, but with no actual change of position.
Theatre owners were worried that white audiences would stay away from a movie with a Black cast. They hosted two premieres, one in Manhattan and one in Harlem. The Black people who came to watch the film in Manhattan were forced to sit in the balcony.
Hallelujah received an overwhelmingly positive response in the United States and internationally, with praise for Vidor’s stature as a film artist and as a humane social commentator. Vidor was nominated for Best Director at the 1929 Academy Awards.