Old movies: celebrating the work of King Vidor

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A massively important name in early Hollywood, we take a look at some of the finest films of director King Vidor.

In England, we’ve got a brand-new spanking King.  Now I’m no royalist, but I thought it was perfect time to direct your attention to one of cinemas greatest directors – King Vidor.

Born in 1894, King Vidor is considered one of the first auteur directors. Traveling into different genres, Vidor’s work would touch sensitively upon social issues and speak about the human existence. Creative and courageous, his films were wildly celebrated as being compassionate and sympathetic. Even now, Vidor’s work is praised and examined, with modern directors citing his movies as big inspirations. Vidor was nominated multiple times for an Academy Award, eventually receiving an honorary one for his work in film.

King Vidor was a prolific film director whose career spanned an incredible 67 years. With that in mind, I’ve decided to select just five of my favourite films of his earliest work to get you started on his immense filmography. So, if you’d like to celebrate of one absolute amazing King, then why not check out these essential Vidor movies?

The Big Parade

Similarly to Lewis Milstone’s All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), The Big Parade is a war drama film that sends the viewer right into the middle of the trenches.

Written by actual veteran Laurence Siblings, the film is centred on James ‘Jim’ Apperson who is a privileged and idle young man, much to the disgust of his wealthy father. When America decides to enter World War I, and despite having previous sad no to enlisting, he decides to join the war effort. However, whilst there, he discovers the true gravity of war and the bloodshed of battle – changing him irreversibly.

John Gilbert leads this absolutely astonishing film where the horrors of World War I are starkly presented. The way fighting transforms Jim from this somewhat renegade young man into the tragic figure at the end of the film is haunting to watch. It is definitely one of Gilbert’s finest works, helping boost him to one of the most sought-after leading men of the silent era.

The film grossed nearly $22 million worldwide and is one of the most successful films of the silent era. It led to Vidor becoming MGM’s top director and helped power forward his career.

Show People (1928)

Do you know what Hollywood love right now? Movies about Hollywood. Do you know what Hollywood loved back in the silent era? Movies about Hollywood.

Show People (pictured at the top of this article) revolves around starlet Peggy Pepper, a young ingenue from Georgia who wants to become a big movie star. However, she falls in love with a comedy star. But when fame hits, it hits her hard and she becomes a bit of an egotistical nightmare.

The movie basically launched the career of Marion Davies and is often considered her best role. Her performance as Peggy has been likened to the careers of divas such as Gloria Swanson and Mae Murray. Davies was having such fun in the comic romp. Lucille Ball would often cite Show People as a major comedic influence.

Despite having no dialogue, it was synced with a musical score and sound effects. In 1980, it was released with a new score by Carl Davies. There are so many cameos here too, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and John Gilbert. Vidor even plays himself.

Billy The Kid (1930)

The story of Billy Kid is one of the infamous tales from the American West. From the Simpsons to video games, and countless amounts of film adaptations, his notorious ways have been frequently dramatized in Western popular culture.

Vidor tackled the legend in his 1930s Western. It features Johnny Mack Brown as the eponymous gunslinger and Wallace Beery as the lawman Pat Garrett, who hunts him down all the way to Mexico in many tense stand-offs.

The film itself was filmed in widescreen, using a lavish process called Realife that was popularised by similar grand epic film The Big Trail in the same year. Beery got an Oscar nominated for his role as Garrett and propelled him into stardom. Though this film has many quips and one-liners, it also has intertitles which sit it between a silent movie and a talkie. Despite this somewhat hesitation with dialogue, it is still an engrossing watch.

The Champ (1931)

Lead actor Wallace Beery won the Academy Award (tied with Fredric March in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) for his performance in Vidor’s The Champ. The story follows aging and alcoholic boxing star Andy Purcell who lives pitifully with his son Dink. Andy is trying desperately to become a star again; his ailment often leaves him down and out. Dink is often left disappointed. However, when Dink’s mother comes back into the picture, Andy tries desperately to prove himself a worthy fighter and a father.

The Champ rocked-fuelled Beery’s career, as well as that of young nine-year-old actor Jackie Cooper. The film is an in-depth look at the immobilisation of alcoholism and how it impacts people. Beery is outstanding in this role, a man encumbered by his addiction. The ending is grief-stricken and even the stoniest of hearts would leave with a tear in their eyes. A brilliant and incredible film that is devastating too.

The Stranger’s Return (1933)

There were times when apparently the worst thing a woman could do is leave her no-good husband.

Here in The Stranger’s Return, Vidor weaves a shrewd if albeit sentimental movie where Miriam Hopkins stars as Louise Storr. After recently separating from her husband in New York, she heads back to Iowa and her grandfather’s farm. There she finds patriarch Grandpa Storr, played by Lionel Barrymore, who she has never met. He resides in a large house with many distant relatives and long-time residents, all vying for their slice of the land and inheritance. Yet  Grandpa and Louise quickly bond, regardless of his age and her seemingly “disgraceful” behaviour.

Though simple in plot, this is a classic Vidor story about family dynamics and the power struggles someone can face when returning home. At times it can be whimsical and delightful, but it is also a shrewd look on how we can all too easily dismiss either a black sheep, or an old relative. Powered by incredible performances from Hopkins and Barrymore, this is a timely piece.

Fun fact: There is a really lovely moment here where the family name checks Ethel Barrymore, one of Lionel’s many acting siblings.

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