King Vidor

Active - 1919 - 1990  |   Born - Feb 8, 1894   |   Died - Nov 1, 1982   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by AllMovie

Born in Galveston, TX, King Vidor was the son of a wealthy lumber manufacturer. He became interested in movies -- then a brand new form of entertainment -- as a young boy, and later took a job as a ticket-taker at the local theater, where he subsequently became a fill-in projectionist. Vidor took this opportunity to watch the same movies over and over, learning from what he saw and deciding that he could do as good a job as most of the people whose films were up on the screen. After working as an amateur photographer, he began shooting newsreel material of events in his area of Texas and selling it to newsreel producers. It was after his marriage to the former Florence Arto in 1915 that he decided to head out to the then newly formed film colony in Hollywood. The couple entered the motion-picture business, but Florence Vidor was the far more successful of the two at first, starting out as a bit player and moving up to supporting roles in films such as A Tale of Two Cities (1917) and into starring roles in the late teens and 1920s. King Vidor, by contrast, worked as an extra and clerk while writing scripts in his spare time, which he was mostly unsuccessful at selling. In 1918, he moved into the director's chair at Universal, making two-reel shorts, and in 1919 he moved up to directing features with The Turn in the Road, which was based on his own screenplay. The Vidors soon began working together under the aegis of his own production unit, called Vidor Village, making movies from his screenplays with Florence Vidor starring in them, including a 1923 production of Alice Adams. By that time, however, their marriage was in trouble and they divorced a year later. Vidor joined the newly organized MGM, where his real reputation was made, on pictures such as the antiwar drama The Big Parade (1925), a silent version of La Boheme (1926) starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, the costume drama Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), starring Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman (who became Vidor's second wife), and The Crowd (1928). The latter, a story (written by Vidor) of one anonymous clerk's drudge-filled life, displayed a remarkably sophisticated social conscience as well as an innovative directorial technique that placed it at the pinnacle of silent-era cinema. Vidor moved with ease into the sound era, largely because he was one of the few silent directors who didn't let the new medium intimidate him -- rather, he used sound to enhance his visual technique, which was unimpaired; his 1929 musical Hallelujah! worked better than most musicals of the era simply because Vidor refused to let the presence of sound (and sound-recording equipment) restrict the mobility of his camera or the editing of his shots. He was also one of the bolder directors of the period in his willingness to work in new formats and media, such as his 1930 Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack Brown and Wallace Beery, which was shot in 70 mm. His output in 1931 included Street Scene, an adaptation of Elmer Rice's play that utilized an extraordinary block-long tenement set; and The Champ, starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, one of the most popular melodramas of its era. Vidor also found time as a writer and producer to return to the social conscience themes displayed in The Crowd, in the form of Our Daily Bread (1934), a story of a young farm couple trying to cope with the effects of the Great Depression; the film is widely celebrated today for its stylistic eloquence. Vidor was one of the few filmmakers of his era who could make such "message" pictures and present their content gracefully. Vidor enjoyed considerable box-office success during the remainder of the 1930s, on movies such as Stella Dallas (1937) and The Citadel (1938), and even when his movies weren't entirely successful, as in the case of The Wedding Night (1935), they were always interesting to watch, and almost every Vidor movie contained at least one visually dazzling sequence; indeed, one of the complaints that occasionally dogged the director over the decades was that critics found the individual scenes in his movies far more striking than the complete work. Ironically, the most widely seen and known film today that Vidor worked on was one for which he never received credit, and which was considered a flop at the time: The Wizard of Oz (1939) -- Vidor was one of a handful of directors who worked on various parts of the picture when the officially credited director, Victor Fleming, was unavailable. In the years that followed, Vidor directed the satirical comedy Comrade X (1940), an attempt to emulate Ninotchka, and the thriller Northwest Passage (1940), starring Spencer Tracy, but his next major box-office hit came seven years later with Duel in the Sun (1947). As a production of David O. Selznick, who tended to intrude on every aspect of filming and utilized several directors in the course of completing the epic Western, the latter was more of a producer's picture than a director's film -- it was widely seen, however, and its very baroque visual touches, coupled with its sexually charged story of two estranged brothers competing for the same, seemingly wanton woman (Jennifer Jones), helped place Vidor once more in the front rank of Hollywood directors. His film The Fountainhead (1949) only solidified his reputation as a stylist, with its audacious (and stunning) visual content and a drama that walked a fine line between the fiercely sexual and the coldly intellectual; like most of Vidor's best movies, it has improved with age. Alas, it was to be the director's last major triumph -- he was unable to make much out of the melodramas Beyond the Forest (1949) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), and an attempted return to social conscience themes with Japanese War Bride (1952) was largely ignored by the public. He also failed in his try at rekindling the chemistry of Duel in the Sun in tandem with Jennifer Jones in Ruby Gentry (1952). Oddly enough, the more modestly framed Western drama Man Without a Star (1955), starring Kirk Douglas, worked much better and is still shown occasionally. Vidor's 1956 adaptation of War and Peace was a modest success, showing the director, who was already past 60, as capable of riding herd over a gargantuan international cast and crew, and he seemed to find the beginnings of a second career in the burgeoning field of international production, where major, albeit aging, Hollywood directors were often welcome, if only for the prestige that they brought to such productions and their potential access to favorable American distribution. His next project, Solomon and Sheba (1959), was produced in Spain with money from United Artists, but the biblical costume epic was marred by a behind-the-scenes tragedy and a major miscalculation by Vidor: Tyrone Power was the original star, and died of a heart attack during filming. There might have been enough finished footage of Power to have completed the movie, but for the fact that Vidor, for reasons best known to himself, had filmed Power's long shots first and neglected his close-ups, thus requiring his replacement by Yul Brynner. Vidor ceased making movies after 1959. He tried to return to filmmaking once, in 1979, at the age of 85, attempting unsuccessfully to raise money to finance a film about the life of James Murray. That movie, to have been based on Vidor's own screenplay, was never made, but he was awarded an honorary Oscar that same year for his career-long contribution to filmmaking.

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