September Highlights on TCM
DIRECTED BY KING VIDOR (September 25, 8pm)--This coming February will mark the 120th birthday of King Vidor. 120 years seems like a big number, a kind of dividing line between the recent and the distant past. Many of the most venerable figures in the history of cinema, the people who created the art form, were around within my lifetime. D.W. Griffith and Louis Lumière died when I was six; John Ford, Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks passed away in the '70s; Alfred Hitchcock and Raoul Walsh in 1980; Allan Dwan was with us until 1981. Vidor died in 1982 at the age of 88, not long after he gave a lovely performance in James Toback's Love and Money. Now, they're all gone. They've passed into legend, and we can no longer go to them for first-hand accounts of their days behind the camera.
Many of the people mentioned above gave interviews in which they told their stories to Peter Bogdanovich and Richard Schickel--Ford chose to keep most of the story to himself and gave extremely cryptic interviews (revealing nonetheless). Some, like Renoir and Walsh, wrote autobiographies. Vidor's autobiography, A Tree Is A Tree, published in 1953 when he was still a working director, is one of the best. It's wonderfully written and it's animated by a real passion for moviemaking, for which Vidor maintained a sense of wonder throughout his life. Vidor was born in Galveston, and when he was very young he started working in a local movie theater as a ticket taker. When the projectionist went on his lunch break, Vidor would relieve him. "When I flashed on the arc and threw in the go-ahead switch, I wasn't sure whether the film was going on the screen upside down, or with action reversed, or whether it was reaching the screen at all," he wrote. "If I had missed the proper sprockets, the dry film would be ripped to shreds or would transform the booth into a flaming hell." He watched a two-reeler based on Ben-Hur 147 times, an experience that gave him a sense of understanding of the rudiments of telling a story on film, and he had his first experience of moviemaking when he and his friend Roy Clough filmed a hurricane with a homemade camera--the magazines were made of cigar boxes lined with black felt, the lens was fashioned from the parts of an old projector, the camera was made lightproof with a cork from a medicine bottle, and the tripod was built out of two soap boxes. Vidor and Clough stood under an umbrella by the sea and filmed a bathhouse being lifted off of its foundation and carried away by the wind and water; they sent the film to a newsreel service and it played the theater circuit in Southeast Texas. "I had been a witness and a participant in recording an actual dramatic event on motion-picture film. It made an indelible mark on my psyche."
The evidence of Vidor's love of cinema is there from his earliest surviving silents to his final films shot on 16mm, and it's there in the five films included in this month's tribute to the director--The Big Parade, Street Scene, Stella Dallas, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry. And they're also showing his extraordinary 1928 picture The Crowd as part of a program of films built around Mark Cousins' documentary series The Story of Film. None of them are to be missed. Vidor was, truly, one of the people who made the art form we call cinema.
by Martin Scorsese