King Vidor (1894-1982)

King Vidor (1894-1982)

"King Vidor presents a problem for those critics who like to herd directors into the convenient pens that auteur theory has so solidly erected. Unusually eclectic, he flitted from the sober realism of Street Scene (1931) to the lurid melodramatics of Duel in the Sun (1946) via the women’s picture Stella Dallas (1937). A yawning ideological gap also existed among his films, and David Thomson isn’t the only critic to spot the ease with which Vidor could move from the neo-socialism of Our Daily Bread (1934) to the crypto-fascism of The Fountainhead (1949). It’s quite typical of Vidor that the former, about the bitter travails of a farm commune, was condemned for being both left and right wing." [2]

"King Wallis Vidor (February 8, 1894-November 1, 1982) originated in Galveston, Texas, retaining vivid memories all his life of a devastating flood and hurricane that hit the town when he was a child. A storm provided the subject of his moviemaking debut in 1909, which he shot with his friend Roy Clough and the latter’s crude homemade camera. A summer job as a ticket taker and substitute projectionist in a nickelodeon had engendered a lifelong fascination: “I was interested in photography and movement even before I started photographing things with a camera.”

At 18 Vidor was appointed Texas representative for New York-based Mutual Weekly newsreel company, partnering with a chauffeur who owned perhaps the only movie camera in the Lone Star State. After making a series of documentaries and short comedies, and marrying an aspiring actress named Florence Arto, he made his way to Hollywood in 1915.

Directing a Florence Vidor film

Florence Vidor earned $10 a week as a contract player for Vitagraph Company while the fledgling filmmaker tried to peddle scenarios, writing more than 50 before finally selling one to Vitagraph for $30. He also worked as an extra for $1.50 a day, and managed to get onto the set of Intolerance to observe D. W. Griffith in action. “You couldn’t think of a greater experience or opportunity than to be on that set. I would have done just about anything to get in and watch what was going on.”

Mechanically inclined and too self-conscious to be an actor, the ambitious young man set his sights on becoming a director. For him, Hollywood was “just one great Disneyland. It was a place where I wanted to be, and I wanted to be part of it… Everything to do with movies fascinated me. I didn’t have thoughts about anything else.”

With Marion Davies (posing as Lillian Gish) on the set of The Patsy

Prop man, assistant cameraman or what have you, Vidor took “any sort of studio work I could scare up,” to study the craft of filmmaking in those pre-union days. “I picked up all I could - I didn't separate things - writing et cetera was all part of it. On one film we were short musicians [to play mood music], so the cameraman played the violin and I cranked the camera; it’s all of the same craft,” he stated in a 1978 interview. “I'm not much on advice, but I would advise young people who want to make films to get in there and learn; learn the whole business. It's all one-learn how an actor feels. What I've learned is that you have to get in there and do it.”

William Haines, Polly Moran, Marion Davies and director King Vidor between scenes of Show People

The Texas native eventually got a job at Universal as a company clerk, supplementing his pay check by selling the studio a number of scenarios - written under the pseudonym of Charles K. Wallis (using his father’s first name) to override the company rule against buying scripts from employees. In 1919, after directing a series of two-reel dramatic films about the problems of adolescents for Judge Willis Brown, a juvenile court judge, Vidor decided it was time to make the big jump to features. When an agent tried and failed to sell his services, he wrote an original script with the intent of refusing offers for it unless he were hired to direct, praying it would have “such merit that all the studios would want it.”

Stage star Laurette Taylor only made three films. One directed by Clarence Badger (left) and two by King Vidor (right)

The Turn in the Road was envisioned as “the story of a young man, stunned by some personal tragedy, hesitating in his march through life to ask, ‘What is Truth?’ ” Though the story had “a miracle and some metaphysical talk in it,” reflecting the director’s Christian Science upbringing, a dentist - one of Judge Brown’s backers - took a one-week option on the script and quickly secured financing for the $9,000 production from a group of doctors he knew.

Vidor made several films for his benefactors, to whom he felt obligated. He then accepted a two picture deal with First National Exhibitors, which he parlayed into his own boutique studio, Vidor Village. He gained experience directing films featuring Colleen Moore (with whom he initiated a secret romance they rekindled decades later) and ZaSu Pitts (whom he discovered on a streetcar), as well as his wife, but was forced to close the studio and freelance. Metro’s Peg o’ My Heart was one of two he made with stage actress Laurette Taylor.

Director King Vidor, M-G-M head of production Irving Thalberg and Lillian Gish on the set of La bohème

Three Wise Fools (1923) represented his first film for Goldwyn, not to mention the first of six he would make with future wife Eleanor Boardman. Estranged from Florence Vidor - by now a rising star in Cecil B. DeMille’s stable - a fast romance with Boardman ensued, coinciding with his rise through the ranks at Goldwyn and its successor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vidor rejected the opportunity to direct MGM’s 1925 Ben-Hur but his fortunes forever changed one day when he told Irving Thalberg “I was tired of making ephemeral films.” As he later recalled, “I had the idea to do a film that came to town and wasn’t forgotten in a few weeks.” Asked if he had any ideas in mind, he voiced a desire to make a film about war, wheat or steel; when the producer expressed interest in a war movie, “I said that I had only an approach. I wanted it to be the story of a young American who was neither patriotic nor a pacifist, but who went to war and reacted normally to all the things that happened to him.”

Renée Adorée and John Gilbert perform a scene from The Big Parade. On the platform, director King Vidor (wearing suit) and cinematographer John Arnold (in white shirt)

The Big Parade (1925) ran six months at Grauman’s Chinese and two years at the Astor Theatre on Broadway. The unexpected success of the film resulted in the opportunity to make The Crowd. But despite the high praise won by the latter, Vidor recalled, “because it didn’t jam the aisles of the gigantic movie emporiums it was referred to in some Hollywood circles as an ‘artistic flop.’ ” It did however earn him the first of five Academy Award nominations as Best Director.

The success of The Big Parade also moved William Randolph Hearst to acquire his services in directing the magnate’s mistress, Marion Davies. Despite his initial disinterest in working with her, together they made a trio of comedies including Vidor’s last two silent efforts, The Patsy and Show People. “Mr. Hearst never gave up until he had me directing Miss Davies. Mind you, this was not an unpleasant chore,” recalled Vidor. “The approach came in the form of a request to do a favor for Mr. Mayer, and, in addition, earn a substantial income.”

Director King Vidor and Daniel L. Haynes keep the tempo for Victoria Spivey on the set of Hallelujah!

While on vacation in Paris, Vidor saw a Variety headline heralding the coming of sound. “I was excited, but greatly saddened. I realized that much magic would disappear from the screen.” MGM’s opposition to his idea for a talkie about African Americans with an all-black cast—which he’d originally wanted to make as a silent - disappeared when he offered to invest his salary. Nicholas Schenck, chairman of Loew’s Inc., told him, “If that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll let you make a picture about whores.”

Vidor’s first talkie, the all-black musical Hallelujah (1929), brought him a second Oscar nomination as Best Director. It did not, however, make him wealthy; he spent decades wrestling with the studio over his earnings on the film, as he had on The Crowd. (“His idealism in pledging his salary to get the film made cost him $31,000” of the $100,000 his Hallelujah contract called for, noted Scott Eyman.)

Director King Vidor introduces his wife, Eleanor Boardman, to the precocious star of The Champ, Jackie Cooper

Ever the innovator, Vidor next shot Billy the Kid on location in Arizona in both 35mm and widescreen 70mm, only to see the latter version scrapped because exhibitors were “still paying for the installation of sound equipment and didn’t want any more revolutions!” He then made Street Scene (an adaptation of the play by Elmer Rice), and The Champ (based on a story by Frances Marion), which resulted in a third nomination for him and an Oscar for Wallace Beery. Bird of Paradise introduced the director to his third wife, script girl Elizabeth “Betty” Hill.

Vidor was forced to borrow the production money “by mortgaging everything I had” to make Our Daily Bread (1934), a story about farm co-ops, when every major studio turned it down; the film won a League of Nations Award “for its contribution to humanity.” His Wedding Night (1935) garnered the Venice Film Festival award for Best Director; Vidor co-founded the Screen Director’s Guild (now the Director’s Guild of America) the same year, serving not only as a guiding force in the group’s formation but its first president “in decisive and difficult years,” as historian David Thomson noted.

Anne Shirley and Barbara Stanwyck in front of the camera; director King Vidor and cinematographer Rudolph Maté (plaid jacket) behind it: Stella Dallas

Stella Dallas (adapted from the popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty) was followed by The Citadel (1938). Filmed in England, the A. J. Cronin story of an idealistic young doctor earned a fourth Oscar nomination for Vidor, as well as a nod for his wife Elizabeth, who co-wrote the screenplay.

Vidor directed Gone With the Wind “for just one weekend” before David O. Selznick brought in Victor Fleming at Clark Gable’s request; happy to be free of the assignment “because they had turned it into such a mess with all those drafts of the script,” he then took over for Fleming on the final days of The Wizard of Oz, filming the black and white Kansas prologue (in which Judy Garland poignantly sings “Over the Rainbow”) and epilogue sans credit. “Vidor may have simply executed the script,” observed David Thomson of the assignment, “But look at the scene again… and ask whether anything in that classic is more touching or more filled with prairie yearning.”

Robert Donat and director King Vidor on the set of The Citadel

Northwest Passage (1940), starring Spencer Tracy as the commander of a group of Indian fighters and filmed on location in Idaho, gave the director his first opportunity to make a film in color (having turned down Selznick’s offer to direct The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Though he was involved in the planning stages of The Yearling as early as 1941, the years-long delay due to a myriad of production problems resulted in Clarence Brown taking over the direction of that film.

The director contemplated enlistment in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but decided “I could best serve my country by making a film on American know-how, on the ‘arsenal-of-democracy’ theme” formulated by President Roosevelt. To this end he dramatized the story of steel, the third of his three big themes, from the viewpoint of an immigrant. An American Romance (1944) was embraced by MGM and Louis B. Mayer, at least initially, but was not a huge success.

Director King Vidor calls the shots on the Duel in the Sun location

Asked by author Clive Denton about the change in his style after the war, Vidor noted, “my career was designed somewhat along the line that in order to make the films that were closest to my heart one might say came from one’s own inside - in other words the auteur theory - I must keep up my box office name in order to be permitted to do the stories and films which were obviously not box office.” Duel in the Sun (1946) began as “a personal film… a moderate-sized Western with an unknown cast,” but thanks to producer David O. Selznick ended up an all-star epic on the scale of Gone With the Wind. Though the lavish production became a huge box office hit it was not a happy experience for Vidor, who walked off the picture when Selznick bawled him out one too many times.

The Fountainhead (1949), based on the Ayn Rand novel, was not a personal project but Vidor felt “very much in accord with this story… because I had just gone through Jungian analysis a few years before, and I was then very conscious of this recognition of the self, the dignity of the self, and the power and divinity one has.” He brought in Rand herself to do the adaptation after a husband and wife team “wrote a script that spoiled what the book intended to be, and what the characters intended to be.”

With his third wife, Elizabeth Hill.

Though he wanted to direct The African Queen for Warner Bros., he accepted the assignment to direct Beyond the Forest with Bette Davis instead. Vidor wrapped his five-decade Hollywood career with a pair of epics, War and Peace (1956) and Solomon and Sheba (1959). The former brought him his fifth and final Oscar nomination, the Golden Globe and Director’s Guild of America nominations. In between the two, he said no to the remake of a classic he’d passed up during the silent era. “Many times I’ve thought what a fool I was to turn down Ben-Hur for a less important picture. Many times I’ve thought that.”

In an attempt to remain active as studio executives became increasingly younger and less cognizant of his work, the director formed Vid-Mor Productions with his old friend Colleen Moore and initiated his own projects. Chief among them was the secret adventure on which he embarked in 1967 - an attempt to solve the scandalous 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor and write a screenplay about it. After interviewing fellow silent era survivors, gaining access to police files, and solving the matter to his satisfaction, he pulled the plug on the still too-sensitive project. (The case and backstory would eventually become the basis for Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s book, A Cast of Killers).

There were numerous other late-career efforts that never came to fruition, including a personal one reflecting “my own individuality” modeled partly on his 1919 feature Turn in the Road, “that eventually became” The Milly Story; one based on Hawthorne’s gothic romance, The Marble Faun; and still another based on Bruno Frank’s biographical novel, A Man Called Cervantes.

In front of the camera in Love & Money

“I never have thought of the word ‘retirement.’ I’ve never had it in my vocabulary,” Vidor told David Shepard. To that end he began working on a number of documentaries and personal films, among them Truth and Illusion, a 16mm short about metaphysics. “I'm interested in life as a study. I've learned not to spend it too freely,” said Vidor. “I consider myself a metaphysician; I've taken time to comprehend the life pattern. It’s important to me to make something of life, to have an understanding of it. My conclusion is that we make our own world, entirely; we can't blame anybody else for anything.”

The Metaphor (1979), a documentary he made with Andrew Wyeth about the painter’s work—which was influenced by The Big Parade, a film Wyeth saw 160 times—represents Vidor’s last directorial credit. However, it was not his final film. Late in 1979 he accepted an acting job, playing the supporting role of a grandfather, in James Toback’s Love & Money (released in 1982). Vidor took the role at the behest of production manager Richard McWhorter, replacing Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers when the latter went into insulin shock after one day’s work.

Vidor, who was presented with an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1979, died of congestive heart failure at his beloved Willow Tree Ranch in Paso Robles, California, at the reported age of 87. He was survived by his daughters, Suzanne (by Florence) Antonia and Belinda (by Eleanor), eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren." [1]


  • The Metaphor (1980)
  • Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1964)
  • Solomon and Sheba (1959)
  • War and Peace (1956)
  • Man Without a Star (1955)
  • Light's Diamond Jubilee (1954)
  • Ruby Gentry (1952)
  • Japanese War Bride (1952)
  • Lightning Strikes Twice (1951)
  • Beyond the Forest (1949)
  • The Fountainhead (1949)
  • On Our Merry Way (1948) ... aka A Miracle Can Happen
  • Duel in the Sun (1946)
  • An American Romance (1944)
  • H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
  • Comrade X (1940)
  • Northwest Passage (1940)
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) (director: Kansas scenes)
  • The Citadel (1938)
  • Stella Dallas (1937)
  • The Texas Rangers (1936)
  • So Red the Rose (1935)
  • The Wedding Night (1935)
  • Our Daily Bread (1934)
  • The Stranger's Return (1933)
  • Cynara (1932)
  • Bird of Paradise (1932)
  • The Champ (1931)
  • Street Scene (1931)
  • Billy the Kid (1930)
  • Not So Dumb (1930)
  • Hallelujah (1929)
  • Show People (1928)
  • The Patsy (1928)
  • The Crowd (1928)
  • Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)
  • La bohème (1926)
  • The Big Parade (1925)
  • Proud Flesh (1925)
  • The Wife of the Centaur (1924)
  • His Hour (1924)
  • Wine of Youth (1924)
  • Happiness (1924)
  • Wild Oranges (1924)
  • Three Wise Fools (1923)
  • The Woman of Bronze (1923)
  • Peg o' My Heart (1922)
  • Conquering the Woman (1922)
  • Dusk to Dawn (1922)
  • Real Adventure (1922)
  • Love Never Dies (1921)
  • The Sky Pilot (1921)
  • The Jack-Knife Man (1920)
  • The Family Honor (1920)
  • Poor Relations (1919)
  • The Other Half (1919)
  • Better Times (1919)
  • The Turn in the Road (1919)
  • The Three Fives (1918)
  • Kid Politics (1918)
  • The Case of Bennie (1918)
  • Love of Bob (1918)
  • Dog vs. Dog (1918)
  • I'm a Man (1918)
  • The Preacher's Son (1918)
  • A Boy Built City (1918)
  • Thief or Angel (1918)
  • The Rebellion (1918)
  • The Accusing Toe (1918)
  • Marrying Off Dad (1918)
  • Tad's Swimming Hole (1918)
  • The Lost Lie (1918)
  • The Chocolate of the Gang (1918)
  • Bud's Recruit (1918)
  • Hurricane in Galveston (1913)
  • The Grand Military Parade (1913)