King Vidor, Raymond Durgnat tells us, "contained multitudes." In a forty-year career that paralleled the growth of American cinema from a charmed adolescence to a tenacious, if tenuous independence, Vidor directed almost every kind of film (comedy, western, war movie, weepie, message film). And many of his pictures (THE BIG PARADE, THE CROWD, SHOW PEOPLE, HALLELUJAH!, OUR DAILY BREAD, NORTHWEST PASSAGE, DUEL IN THE SUN, WAR AND PEACE) remain popular and museum classics.
But Durgnat, in this book-length study written especially for FILM COMMENT, is talking about something else: the multitude of threads of the American character that are woven into the director and his films. Vidor was a populist and a transcendentalist, a puritan and a sensual lyricist, a conservative and a liberal. In tracing the roots of these complexes and contradictions, Durgnat has in effect written a critical history of American social and political thought. And because Durgnat is equally a film historian and a social critic, his insights into Vidor’s work are as informed as they are idiosyncratic. His extended comparisons of Vidor with virtually every Pantheon director are particularly enlightening. Indeed, like the filmmaker he so admires, Durgnat contains multitudes.—Richard Corliss
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“On the name Vidor, cinema historians have once and for all stuck the label ‘epic poet’. . .” So Etienne Chaumeton writes in Cinema 56, before a long and interesting comparison between Vidor and Gance (“in which, ” one is relieved to discover, “Vidor clearly comes off best.”)
In film criticism, “epic poet” still suggests a certain simplicity of message that Vidor’s films, however powerful, never quite accept, even on first viewing. And one turns, with a surprised sense of discrepancy, from the libidinous emphases for which certain Vidor films became (perhaps unjustly) notorious, to the stream of gentle, almost pious sentiments and scruples of his autobiography and interviews and to certain suggestive ellipses or intimations therein. The democratic humanism of his films before World War II scarcely accords with his adaptation of Ayn Rand. Complications rapidly appear: not just between films but within them, at their very core.
Given the standpoint of the social and moral criticism which permeates his work (in exact conformity with his insistence on a moralizing purpose), it’s particularly startling to find his films’ affinities, circumscribed but profound, with certain radical preoccupations. One example: Paul Goodman’s Communitas, with its emphasis on local liberty and a new populism, its declaration of a Jeffersonian anarchism, its faith in the nature of man. Goodman’s statement, “Remove authority and there will not be chaos but self-regulation and natural man,” is a pivot around which Vidor’s thought has also turned, never quite coming to rest.
The notes which follow try to clarify some of the contradictions and paradoxes—the small print, the finer points, the central conflicts—which comprise a record of Vidor’s love affair with America. It was a love affair variously (or simultaneously) idyllic, recriminatory, indulgent, and imbued with a passion often as quiet and subtle as philosophy. It’s easily assumed that powerful emotions are less discriminating than rational thought. My assumption here has been that certain emotions may be signals from “intuitive” or “preconscious” thought—the kind of thought that seems vague or imprecise only because of a genuine difficulty in verbalizing it.—Raymond Durgnat
A still from The Big Parade (1925)
The Big Parade (1925)
Vidor saw THE BIG PARADE as the story of an average American, neither overly patriotic nor a pacifist, who goes to war “for the ride and tries to make the most of each situation as it happens.” In the event, the film has to give its hero one of many possible backgrounds rather than another, and its James Apperson (John Gilbert) is one of Vidor’s privileged heroes. An amiable, perhaps spoiled idler (whose social temptation to a lazy languor is symbolized by the hot towels over his face in the barbershop), James has remained perhaps more empty, certainly less responsible, but also spiritually more open than his joylessly industrious brother. If he volunteers upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, it is quite without real commitment, rather bemusedly, as if the brash style of interventionist propaganda sparked off in him some confused yet vivid need to involve and transcend himself. (Perhaps his closest movie cousin, or rather nephew, is Dean Martin in THE YOUNG LIONS, years later).
To his brother, James loses the girl whose frivolous beauty seemed right for him. And in return he finds, not, like some of his English contemporaries, “the rough male kiss of blankets,” but a more robust and humorous camaraderie. His buddy in the ranks is a riveter and all the exhilarations of social leveling are paraphrased (with, perhaps, a disappointing imprecision) by slightly slapstick brawling. In an estaminet punch-up Apperson ends up hiding in a barrel, an image right out of the rustic side of slapstick.
His “sentimental education” is extended by his encounter with Mélisande (Renée Adorée) who, as woman, as European, and as working peasant, is his social and spiritual antithesis, and complement. Ignoring all the ooh-la-la and amenable village girls unleashed by WHAT PRICE GLORY?, Vidor honors the “Women of France” who plow the fields in their menfolk’s absence, and are well worthy of comparison with America’s log-cabin matriarchs. When the playboy snatches a kiss she knocks him down, and then picks him up, since her response is an Amazonian common sense rather than a negative puritanism. For this Diana embarrasses the men by catching them naked, and laughs amiably at their embarrassment.
Apperson’s mother loves her bad boy, a little too indulgently for his own good, one fears at first; she tempts him to remain a ladies’ man, a mother’s boy. His father seems disapproving of his non-commitment to that Samuel Smiles ethos which prizes industriousness above manliness, and which somehow seems to have crushed the animal spirits of his “good” brother (or, conversely, by which his less spirited and merely “good” brother has allowed himself to be crushed). The mother’s boy rediscovers fraternity, in the true sense, with the riveter; and through the French girl he discovers his “other” father. As her grandfather reads letters from the front, his patriotically sported saber proves so obtrusive that the young doughboy falls backwards off his chair avoiding it. The humor in this profoundly Griffithian scene is on both the nations and the generations.
The baptism of fire in Belleau Wood can, if one so wishes, be read as the consummation of manhood. Just because war is hell, it is also purgatory, the nitty-gritty initiation by everything an enemy can throw at one. I remember a 1963 audience laughing derisively at what presumably seemed to them no more than an archaically clear-faced American boy marching boldly forward, and enjoying an improbably charmed existence, while the intimations of discomfiture on his countenance signified ham silent acting. Yet the scene may have another meaning. Almost too dazed to be terrified, the unblooded volunteer—one typical of many—is driven on in a cause which isn’t his own.
Two things keep him advancing, rather than allowing him to scatter and run, as would be logical from a strictly individualist point of view (although already we are beyond a meanly sober logic more characteristic of Apperson’s brother). Real individualism here is a matter of discovering, and proving, moral fiber. And the film concentrates less on the army machine of which Apperson has become part than on his open, soft, anxious eyes, asserting the fears against which Apperson advances. The powers driving him on are of a transcendental order, so long as the word “transcendental” is disassociated from the idealism of the bodiless spirit, and related to some categorical imperative of the life force itself. For Vidor’s emphasis on the physical (the brawls, the baccy chewing, the contrast of hot towels and naked embarrassment) is also an emphasis on the nervous will—or, rather, the spiritual in its animal expression.
Earlier, the untried troops marching along the roads in rigidly orderly columns are attacked by enemy aircraft. They scatter. They re-form. Hesitantly, morale—as a morality—asserts itself, by way of prelude to the march in Belleau Wood itself. The two sequences are anagrams of each other. The earlier, in long shot, stresses the mass, its disruption and reformation. The later, in closer view, emphasizes an individual, and a continuing advance played off against a continuous fear. The first scene features the open road and the open sky; the second brings us into the wood, with the verticals of men and trees. In the first scene, the wounded lie on the road, rocking in pain; in the second, they just fall. The relatively static camera of the first scene becomes a sostenuto tracking in the later. The contrast of elements—of space, of light and shade, of visual tempi—is essentially musical,” and Griffithian. The screw is given a further twist with the enemy’s use of poison gas. After our sensitivities have become attuned to anxious eyes, to flesh (awaiting the bullet), and to forest scents, the men must don respirators. Their eyes become aghast, staring panels of cellophane; their flesh is sealed off under bestial snouts; and before removing them altogether, they sniff the air, apprehensively.
If this pattern of contrasts seems improbably cerebral for a Hollywood movie of the Twenties, the comparison with Griffith is a useful one. The question can also be approached from the commonsense, or showmanlike, angle. By way of prologue to the march through Belleau Wood, one needs an incident on the same theme, but sufficiently different not to sap the shock of the climax. Hence an episode is devised which will contrast al/ the elements of the climax except the theme. Equally, once the physical atmosphere of the wood has been evoked, the filmmaker seeks a series of physical surprises, in exactly the same way as he might seek a series of dramatic surprises. And, as I shall argue in a little more detail later, the surprise of the “twist” whether in drama or mise-en-scéne— corresponds to the shock in Eisenstein’s meaning of “montage.”
Although THE BIG PARADE (like its English counterpart, Anthony Asquith’s TELL ENGLAND) was a little too rapidly assumed by critics to be “anti-war,” Vidor’s comments suggest that its stress on war’s horrors was the precondition of its heroism. And, while one must trust the song and not the singer, the film doesn’t seem to me to imply a tragic-ironic condemnation of the futility of war in general or indeed of that one in particular—albeit it certainly sets its face against cheap heroics, in an engagement which, ten years after the time, many Americans might well have held as readily in respect as the Battle of the Alamo.
Although discipline as such is important (Apperson must march off in step with his company), the theme of a “company of buddies”—so carefully worked through the comedy, and kept distinct from the stress on mindlessly tough discipline so prominent after 1945—finds its moral consummation after Apperson’s riveter buddy Slim (Karl Dane) returns from a foray, carrying the tin hats of those whom he has killed (trophies like scalps). There is certainly an admirable exuberance, perhaps even a certain hubris, about Slim’s quiet prowess as a killer. As he lies wounded out in No Man’s Land, the erstwhile playboy is inspired to a compound of self-sacrificial rashness (“Greater love hath no man”) and its antithesis, a revengeful rage. Disobeying orders, Apperson slips out of his trench in an act of insubordination which later became routine in Hollywood military movies, presumably as constituting a guarantee that the hero’s acceptance of authority has not crushed his independent individualism. But the man whom he finds in No Man’s Land is a wounded German—perhaps the man by whom Slim was killed. Apperson’s humanity triumphs over his rage, and the cigarette which he gives his enemy may remind us that the poor little rich boy was taught the rough virility of chewing plugs of baccy by the man whom he set out to avenge.
In this assertion of human compassion some might see a condemnation of war, others merely a homage to the spirit of the Geneva Convention. And it’s probably worth bearing in mind, cynically no doubt, that a substantial proportion of American spectators, being of not-soremote German descent, might well, war fever over, appreciate Apperson’s humanity. Before Pearl Harbor, Louis B. Mayer was insistent on showing the captured Luftwaffe pilot in MRS. MINIVER as a “good guy,” forcing William Wyler to argue that if he had two Germans he could show one as a good guy, but since he only had one he ought to be a bad, Nazi one. While it’s possible that Mayer had some dramatic pattern of his own in mind, I don’t think one can dismiss the possibility that his considerations included a concern for German Americans— maybe even a certain isolationism. At any rate, the majority of spectators would presumably admire both the murderousness of Slim and the forebearance of his friend. Here, as later, Vidor’s readiness to appreciate apparently opposite forms of moral expression obscures the extent to which he is also a puritanical moralist. In what sense of the word “puritan” we shall try to be more precise.
Spiritual education always comes expensive; in fact its price is life itself. The war leaves Apperson shorn of a leg and embittered in spirit. “You look fine!” enthuses his dishonest brother. “Oh shut up, you know how I look!” His mother, seeing her mutilated son, weeps. And it is to her honesty that he turns. “Mother—there’s a girl in France…” “You must find that girl!” The gift of truth, the gift of tears, the gift of faith—they belong together, they are his mother’s power. If Apperson once seemed in danger of becoming merely a ladies’ man, it was also because femaleness has that power which his generously impressionable (not crudely “tough”) maleness has the caliber to accept. His manhood now affirmed, and injured, and in the midst of masculine negativity and sycophancy, it is female strength and resolution which revives the life force in him. Her command could seem merely optimistic, but it involves other factors as well: a loving mother’s giving away her son to an “alien” woman; her confidence in “that girl,” which is a maternal, magic prescience; and her sending her son on a quest which requires from him the force to defy his mutilation and despair.
Earlier, Apperson’s regiment moved off from its billet to the front line; and Mélisande, clinging to him, pulled a spare boot from his pack, and was left in the road, clasping the boot to her bosom. This is the first of the three scenes in which marching is asserted against potential disruption. And, given the magic of female love in a world whose romanticism is the fruit of a transcendental vision rather than of a mechanical optimism, it’s perhaps the strength given to that boot by Mélisande’s embrace which—reinforced by the love of a mother too generous to be a rival—gives him the strength to limp back to her. The young Vidor’s romanticism is more optimistic than it will later become, but we might have expected this poet of the earth (fields, desert, swamp) to have made a great deal of death in the trenches. But the predominant theme is marching—the stamp of Anteus forever spurning Mother Earth, yet sustained by her.
Obeying, Apperson finds his Mélisande. It’s not easy, and yet it’s as if by magic. As he recognizes her from afar, and hobbles on his crutches towards her over the fields, it is as if a combination of maternal and manly energies had somehow compelled time, space, destiny itself to yield. It is always difficult to judge how artificial a set seemed in its time, and particularly in the emotional context of its time (for the cinema’s entertainment mainstream can fairly be described as hallucinatory, given the readiness with which feeling is expected to override accurate seeing). But it seems to me that here Vidor has emphasized, rather than underplayed, a non-realism for which, in HALLELUJAH! and OUR DAILY BREAD, he will find, by Seventies criteria, subtler and more effective means.
The conclusion yields its fuller meaning when contrasted to Apperson’s earlier attempt to find her. Half-delirious, he struggles up from his bed, in a church turned hospital, while, behind him, a patient so delirious that he has had to be strapped down seems the symbol of his helplessness and his crazy initiative. But his attempt is futile, and it is not until his return to his mother’s faith and the pseudo-sanity of bitterness that he can find his beloved. The combination of delirium, madness, and a church setting creates an aura of supernatural forces, and the implication certainly seems to be that (whatever their good works) either Christianity or the official, established forms of it are sterile compared with the family magic of mother and son, of two human beings united by blood and sexuality, and somehow compelling the universe to respond with a concession—a miracle. Thus the individual, as linked by love, may prove himself both natural and supernatural.
And this seems to me the film’s overall sense, rather than an affirmation of peace and love as against war, which, after all, enabled Apperson to meet his Mélisande. Why go to war? Because it is there—or, rather, because man must not just test but perfect himself one way or another. His absence of rational militaristic enthusiasm may well have arisen as a result of, or functioned as an accommodation of, the isolationist feelings which, in 1917, were sometimes mixed with pacifist inclinations. Thomas Ince’s CIVILIZATION was avowedly anti-interventionist, and it’s tempting to ask whether some such sentiment doesn’t underlie the apotheosis of Griffith’s INTOLERANCE. It would be surprising if isolationism, as a traditional American attitude, never found accommodation on the screen. (And at least one neutral’s film, Holger Madsen’s HIMMELSKIBET [THE SKY SHIP, 1918], from Denmark, strikes me as, on balance, both pacifist and pro-German—not surprisingly, if one considers where its main market was likely to lie.) Insofar as any clear moral about war is concerned, THE BIG PARADE is absolutely ambiguous, and Vidor’s real concern seems to be a man’s need to face risk and danger if he is to grow and yet to remain true to the roots of his strength, his family.
A book about family tensions in American movies is long overdue, but I suspect that the “mother” theme, here as in many American films and songs of the Twenties, is far from being merely a facile exploitation of sentimentality. On the contrary, it attempts a desperately “inspirational” answer to specific social tensions: between immigrant parents and would-be all-American offspring; between traditional peasant or European notions of the family and American individualism; and the accelerated fluidity of American society—notably the “internal immigration” from depressed rural areas to the cities.
Years later (1968), a specifically hawkish and pro-militarist film, YOURS MINE AND OURS, will bring together the only apparently distinct themes of THE BIG PARADE—the family and the armed forces—as when Henry Fonda is flown back from an aircraft carrier off Vietnam for the birth of yet another son. In his documentary MARINES, Francois Reichenbach mentions the vulgar-Freudian hypothesis that, if so many young Americans readily volunteer for harshly disciplined training, it’s in order to assert their manhood against Momism. But film examples apart, it’s obviously schizoid to assume, as in our attacks on sentimentality we too often do, that by becoming part of an army you cease to be your mother’s son any more than you cease to be your wife’s husband; having raised the point one needn’t, I hope, dwell on it. Certainly the triangle (son-mother-toughness) is obsessive in gangster movies (SCARFACE, LITTLE CAESAR, PUBLIC ENEMY, WHITE HEAT), and in the first two films the immigrant theme is absolutely clear. THE BIG PARADE inverts the theme: the American WASP finds a foreign wife.
But ambiguities remain. Just as Mélisande resembles a log-cabin wife, so the French grandfather, with his saber, resembles a veteran Of the Civil War in a Griffith film. Doubtless Vidor is taking an easy line against an easy assumption that foreigners are either ridiculous or sinful or lacking in true grit. The “foreignness” of Southern tradition affords him a useful common denominator, particularly since he is a Southerner himself; and Vidor’s intermittent interest in “over-privileged” sons may have some autobiographical root.
Not that national differences are altogether forgotten. Just as Slim teaches Apperson to chew baccy, so Apperson teaches Mélisande to chew gum, and maybe there’s a kind of hierarchy of virility here, counterpointed though it is by Slim’s death and by Mélisande’s Amazonian response to a first kiss. Baccy, gum, and kiss are all initiations; and the series of oral acceptances is continued by the cigarette which Apperson gives his wounded enemy—which as a gesture of compassion, of relenting, of valediction, is in a sense a reverse of initiation. Criticism is sometimes too quick to assume that symbols which are all of a kind must point in the same emotional direction. Yet that familiar word “twist” indicates that sudden, subtle changes of direction are well known in dramatic structures. And clearly the same search for quick strong contrasts is applicable at every level of imagery.
The change from baccy to gum also implies a switch from the rough-and-ready he-man American style to something softer, blander, slicker. Apperson uses the chewing-gum lesson to prelude his successful seduction of Mélisande into a kiss; thus the “pioneer” woman is tricked—and eased—into a loss of integrity which is also a womanly fulfillment. The irony parallels the way Apperson is seduced from his aimless comforts into signing up—by a somewhat callow, fervid propaganda. The irony is, eventually, reversed into faith. It was right for Apperson, and Mélisande, to yield—even if the vulgarity of the means strikes a discordant note.
This mixture of impressionability and resolution is the moral theme of the film. Apperson doesn’t make much of an issue of commitment to a particular choice: “death or glory,” “make or break,” ‘be a coward or a man,” etc. The alternatives hardly exist for him, and perhaps his closest relatives in the ambit of film culture are Renoir’s elusive corporal, his Captain Georges, and his Captain John in THE RIVER. In terms of persistence against the world and acceptance of it, Apperson comes halfway between the first man and the last; and, like the man in the middle, he is brave, responsive (particularly to the moral authority of the female), decent and dependent.
Vidor’s real subject is not so much morality as morale, and an affirmative abandonment to nature-cum-fate. One acquiesces in nature by asserting one’s own nature (and not one’s social ego!) respectfully against nature, yet within it. Interestingly, Vidor and Renoir both show pantheistic tendencies. Both have a reputation as lyricists of sexual love, although their range is wider and they are often critical or ironical about passions, even while respecting them. And the honor which both directors accord moral unself-consciousness suggests that, for them (to paraphrase Keats’ observation about poetry), “if morality doesn’t come as naturally as leaves on a tree, it had better not come at all.”
Despite Hollywood’s subsequent fixation on toughness, Vidor isn’t alone in asserting the need for the “masculine” man’s acceptance of female strength, although critics anticipate the general public’s feeling that Momism is sentimental or positively regressive. Hence THE BIG PARADE is remembered largely as an ‘anti-war” film, and its family-sexual theme virtually forgotten. Yet the latter didn’t seem to me to have dated any more than the comradely brawling. If anything, it seemed fresher, simply because so many films by Ford, Hawks, et al., had done all the variations on the Flagg-and-Quirt bit (a) more lyrically and (b) to death. By 1963 (when I first saw it) the theme of family vitalism, and its style, were old enough to be new. And by 1973 most of Ford’s THE QUIET MAN celebrates its coming of age by looking quite as empty and contrived as the one or two facile passages of Vidor’s film.
It’s unsurprising that the Belleau Wood sequence has become the best remembered. What surprises, in view of the film’s unevenness, is its power to survive as a whole structure and to move consistently. While, clearly, the better sequences in any film may transform our apprehension of the rest (and vice versa), the discursive structure of THE BIG PARADE might seem to minimize any such effect, and reduce it to one or two anthology pieces best seen divorced from their context.
Its survival of the ravages of time may be partly a matter of Vidor’s Napoleonic luck. The failure of some more dated scenes to involve us is congruent with Apperson’s mixture of partial detachment and his surprise at his own involvement (although, no doubt, the film involved its audiences in its time—earlier, fuller, and with a steadier progression than it does us). Nonetheless, Apperson’s relationship with worlds which at first he finds strange, and to none of which he permanently commits his spirit, remains slightly like Harry Langdon’s. He’s a little outside it, as are we, albeit affectionately. This lucky chance would be inadequate indeed without the unifying effect of two aspects of Vidor’s style.
The first, deployed most obviously in the Belleau Wood sequence, is what Vidor terms his “favorite obsession” “silent music,” which may be defined as visual rhythms in the sense both of cutting and of the whole orchestration of physical movement—mise-en-scene as well as montage. Such formal, stylistic inventiveness might seem to result in a “lyrical” quality, a simple, easily summarizable feeling. But it is quite as likely to work on the contrasts within the overall feeling, just as an overall emotional tension is often the product of conflict, i.e. contradiction. Thus the depiction of courage requires the vividness of actual or potential fear. We have indicated some aspects of this “alternating current” in contrasting the air attack and the Belleau Wood sequence, and will consider another in discussing the climax of OUR DAILY BREAD.
THE BIG PARADE owes much of its strength to its director’s combination of tightly controlled tempi, lyrical acting, and strong mise-en-scéne—qualities whose meanings are far from being tautologous to each other. The sense of speed counterpoints (sometimes overrules, sometimes concentrates) that of the acting, while the organization of visual elements often asserts another aspect of experience altogether. Vidor retains and develops the aesthetic of Griffith into what is, in a way, the American counterpart of the Russian silent cinema. The contrast has been stated in terms of Murnau versus Eisenstein; but Murnau isn’t the clearest instance, since the moving camera usually creates a condition intermediate between fast cutting (montage) and visual development within the static shot (mise-en-scéne). In this sense, the Belleau Wood sequence comes closer to the Murnau style, while the air attack is closer to mise-en-scéne (the role of depth of focus in Renoir and Wyler).
The unself-conscious physical reactions of Griffith’s heroes, of Chaplin and Lillian Gish, find their counterpart in the strong sense of bodies in Eisenstein and Pudovkin—albeit geared to slow peasant solidity rather than the nervous speed which inspired slapstick. Although American cutting soon slows, the slower cutting goes with a brisk narrative pace and relatively fast acting. Conversely, Russian actors tend to be static rather than mobile, partly because the cut tends to fragment (and maybe even arrest) movement within the shot, which mise-en-scéne allows a fuller continuity and blossoming. To take a very simple example, what was called the “Russian cut” would show a man rising from a chair in two set-ups. An eye-level or high-angle shot of the seated man, whose head rises out of frame, followed by a second shot, of the space which he promptly filled. The American preference was normally for a shot sufficiently distant to contain both phases, since, though visually “slower,” it was less distracting (and cheaper).
A second scene is that in which Mélisande clings to Apperson as he leaves for the battlefront. It’s important, of course, that the theme of marching recurs, and that the fondled boot presages the lost leg. But Vidor’s unabashed way with emotion belongs with Griffith and Chaplin rather than with his nearer contemporaries Wellman and Hawks. Ford, like Vidor, also comes between the two; but Vidor comes nearer to the more archaic pole in which strength of feeling is felt to be a natural concomitant of strength—which is implied, and not questioned, by enthusiasm and tears, and which doesn’t really need to be distinguished from weakness by any display of impassiveness or toughness. There is a faint incongruity in John Gilbert’s presence in the barracksroom world; the incongruities are a source of our uncertainty and interest. The film affirms the integrity and solidarity of human existence all the more poignantly because it suggests that it’s only through normally untapped reservoirs of life force, of feeling, of “magic,” that the world’s deeper unity can be asserted against its all-too-obvious incongruities—contrasts, conflicts, and ruptures. Similarly, throughout the thirty years or so when Hollywood normally classified films as men’s films and women’s films, Vidor’s had a curious way of being both at once—possibly because he accepted, quite lyrically, the weaknesses of men and the strengths of women.
Apperson never loses his spiritual differences from his comrades, yet his contact is real with his spiritual antitheses—the business-minded brother, the ferocious hardhat, the peasant girl. The film’s discursive structure is appropriate to its eventual, precarious affirmation of a man’s élan vital deepening and consolidating itself by a risky interaction with disparate milieux and values—mother’s love and the trenches, the rich boy and the riveter, responsiveness as both weakness and transcendence. This gives it its extraordinary central position, at a crossroads between the “tough” world of Hawks or Walsh, the male tear-jerkers of Ford, the romanticism of Borzage, the stoic ironies of Sternberg, the sense of rural self-help in Wellman. Vidor’s film becomes a kind of “layman’s progress” through a vitalist world. And the precarious balance of weakness and courage in Apperson’s self-giving and self-withholding is a poignant and daring one.
The difference of caliber between Vidor and Hawks may be indicated by contrasting THE BIG PARADE with SERGEANT YORK. Hawks’s initially rustic, puritan, pacifist hero makes his private’s progress to an Old Testament doctrine (of picking off the evil Hun from the rear, like duck-shooting) and finally enters the presence, if not of God, then at least of God’s Own Country’s President. But it’s something in Hawks, rather than the requirements of wartime propaganda, which leaves his straightforward conversion story with a sense of emotional problems slickly solved. THE BIG PARADE, only intermittently more perfect in its surface texture, has a profounder movement. In much the same way, Wellman’s PUBLIC ENEMY is built on contradictory ideas, and seems to me far more interesting—and therefore moving—than Hawks’s SCARFACE, whose perfection of atmosphere goes along with a single and simpleminded put-down of a scapegoat for rather more diversified forms of corruption—which is the real reason why Hollywood had such difficulty in stopping its public from admiring even its gangster villains.
Is a narrow lyricism, or a fidelity to the texture of unexamined experience, artistically more valid than a structure sufficiently tension-riddled both to undermine simple, intense, and obvious “moods” and to substitute another kind of excitement? This question still hasn’t been properly debated. Both the partisans of lyricism (those who prefer the Hawks to the Wellman) and the aesthetic structuralists (whose connections with the left might have bred a preference for those structures which involve strong contradictions) tend to assume that ideas and emotions, ideology and lyricism, are separate realms or systems, rather than being closely integrated ones. Another useful example is the curious way in which many of the critics who declare themselves “apolitical” not only resent radical criticism of the status quo, but become uneasy even when political orientations of any kind are so much as noticed. Yet if they were really apolitical they would find radical criticisms altogether acceptable, if only as representing some people’s experiences and feelings.
My own feeling is that the most valuable works of art allow one neither just a pleasant wallow in one’s favorite emotions nor just a merely intellectual diagram of some thematic circuitry. At any rate, one is likely to do Vidor equal injustice by approaching him either as merely a kind of epic lyricist, devoid of ideas, or as an essentially transcendental thinker who is content to assert simple ideas. For he frequently explores, with a critical fascination, the embroilment of complications and contradictions which is the human lot. Since the critical emphasis has lain on the lyrical Vidor, ours will rest, for once, on the underlying ideas.
The notion of Vidor the merely emotional lyricist also does scant justice to Vidor the dramatist. For in a sense drama is the conflicts arising when different feelings (or attitudes, or drives) collide and can’t merge. If the self-consciously lyrical dramas of so many Victorian poets flopped, it was because, in their desire to build up the lyrical intensity, they underestimated both the lyrical force of sudden contradiction (the overall feeling of a structure of feelings), and the extent to which the greatest romantic lyrics, like Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, abound in varied and contradictory emotional conflicts. The drama has already penetrated the lyric, or, rather, generated it. To be sure the lyric can accept or subsume the various elements; it is, as it were, a moment, perhaps a crucial one, in a continuing drama. But, like every other moment of that drama, it includes all the elements of that drama. It is neither an abstraction devoid of conflict nor a sentimental defense against conflict—two attitudes that produce bad lyrics and worse dramas.
Eleanor Boardman and James Murray in The Crowd (1928)
The Crowd (1928)
John (James Murray) begins life with an indulgent father who means to give him all the advantages. But with his father’s untimely death comes the great middle-class nightmare so vividly described by George Orwell, and John is precipitated down among the crowd. An obstinate, foolish, and admirable ambition sustains him through his marriage and the birth of a daughter until, as she lies dead, he convinces himself that she is merely sleeping, and tries to quiet the traffic so she won’t awaken. But one can t expect to hush New York. Although Vidor attributes to New York none of the positive cruelty that an expressionist might have underlined, the scene still reads as:
“With all the best will in the world, crowded cities are unneighborly plates.”
Demoralized, John finally acquiesces in his responsibilities, and takes the job as a sandwich man whom he had once, in his ebullient arrogance, thoughtlessly mocked. Dressed as a clown, he sports the legend: “l am always happy because I eat at Schneider’s.” Visiting the cinema, he laughs at a screen clown with frank enjoyment, with neither bitterness nor superiority—and clearly the audience in the film is the audience of the film.
THE CROWD belongs to an international wave of populist films, if we use populism not in the usual political sense, but in the film one, as being about the petits gens, the lower middle classes and lower. The cycle flourished from just before the beginning of sound until the mid-Thirties, when a mixture of economic stagnation and preparation for war shifted the emphasis different ways in different countries. Some German films—BACKSTAlRS and THE LAST LAUGH, for example—tend to be too quickly subsumed under the label of “expressionism,” their other aspects remaining underrated; and the splendid volume on the German realist cinema by Borde, Buache, and Courtade still hasn’t provoked a widespread awareness of such fascinating films as BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ and ASPHALT (which I found briefly reminiscent of Vidor in visual style). Hollywood never overlooked America altogether (vide Gloria Swanson’s comic subway ride in Allan Dwan’s MANHANDLED), and much early Populism may be grouped under the “small town or “rural American” theme; but Paul Fejos’s LONESOME, and Vidor’s THE CROWD and STREET SCENE clearly belong to this international category. French populism remains the best remembered—with Vigo’s L’ATALANTE, Clair’s SOUS LES TOITS DE PARIS and LE QUARTORZE JUILLET, Renoir’s TONI and THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE, Carne’s HOTEL DU NORD and LE JOUR SE LEVE. For a mixture of excellent and trivial reasons, the same cinematic current was rebaptized “neo-realism” when it resumed after 1945, although Becker’s ANTOINE ET ANTOINETTE indicates the continuance of the earlier strain. The postwar course of populism in the U.S.A. was different altogether, for a variety of reasons, although obvious descendants of THE CROWD include MARTY and STUDS LONIGAN, THE MARRYING KIND and THE APARTMENT, the last featuring an explicit homage to the open-plan office of Vidor’s film.
A particular motif of this screen Populism—the theme of the crowd—pervades the cinema between the wars, for a variety of reasons (ranging from the European recognition that the poor are not a mob, to the internal immigration within America from depressed rural areas to the cities). The sense of the crowd as a dauntingly impersonal mechanism, swelling and subsiding at machine-speed rhythms and routines, inspires Ruttmann’s BERLIN; and its Hollywood equivalents are, amazingly enough, such Busby Berkeley numbers as “42nd Street” in 42ND STREET and “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the chorus-girls’ aubade in DAMES. What Ruttmann and Berkeley have in common is a kind of semi-abstract cinema; indeed, Berkeley qualifies as a Broadway constructivist.
Some parallels between Berkeley and Vidor are intriguing too. What we think of as Berkeley’s “visual choreography” is what Vidor has called “silent music.” And in both directors one finds an inspired, unself-conscious eroticism born of a generalized exuberance. Berkeley ventures into social comment too, in the ‘ ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. In THE CROWD, Vidor’s camera moves up the office block and then in through one particular window among thousands—a device shared with Berkeley, as well as with René Clair. In THE BIG STORE (Marx Brothers, 1940), Tony Martin’s rendering of “The Tenement Symphony” transposes and trivializes the theme into sentimental operetta terms, only too characteristic of the genre’s decline in wartime Hollywood.
The subway sequence in MANHANDLED offers a useful example of everyday exasperations translated into gags which, without altogether occluding the real tensions of urban existence, encapsulate them by a crisp humor that may be shaded towards either sarcasm (as in Wilder’s tragicomic THE APARTMENT) or complacency (as in Cukor’s THE MARRYING KIND, which, sensitive as it is, cheerfully renounces the challenge and depth which its scenario renders a theoretical possibility). This common enough entertainment device prevents realism from becoming too drab or depressing. And though it may slightly vitiate some early passages in THE CROWD, it’s given a different quality by Vidor’s characteristic energy, and impregnated by all the latent possibilities established in the prologue. When the shift in tone comes, it is all the more devastating. But, on the whole, the gagsmanship formula serves to underline the temptations into which Vidor’s film doesn’t fall. MGM’s nervousness about it is illustrated by the fact that eight different endings were shot, and that it was offered to exhibitors with the choice of an ending happier than the standard one. Vidor is justifiably proud that only one exhibitor requested it. Perhaps Vidor’s secret is that his sense of human energy gives the most anguishing sequences a scandalous vitality which, as in his postwar excursions into film noir, gives even the unhappy endings their exhilaration.
In its concern with morale, THE CROWD parallels other films of the Twenties, notably Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS, UNDERWORLD, and THE LAST COMMAND (which is also the tale of a social fall: the General becomes a film extra). Such films may well have special reference to the difficulties of survival or cultural shock experienced by immigrants to the city, whether from across the Atlantic or from within America herself. Some aspects peculiar to foreign immigration are touched upon by Chaplin in THE IMMIGRANT, and later by Vidor in THE WEDDING NIGHT (see my remarks in that chapter on “Sons of the Pioneers?” ) and AN AMERICAN ROMANCE.
In most films, however, the shock of big-city life is usually experienced by a stranger from the virtuously WASP Midwest. Such a hero offers fewer problems of identification, particularly given the sensitivity about foreign origins to which George Seaton attributed the box-office failure of his ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN as late as the early Fifties. Perhaps, too, it was risky to criticize the way of American city life from the point of view of any but that of an unimpeachably American type.
The white man—redskin love-hate affair so brilliantly described by Leslie Fiedler has, I suspect, more behind it than Rousseauvian romanticism or exoticized homosexuality; it’s also a suitably escapist transposition to problems of blood-brotherships across WASP and ethnic group lines. Conversely, Slim, in THE BIG PARADE, collecting steel helmets like scalps, briefly “becomes” an Indian, prefiguring the coldly efficient Indian machine-gunner in Norman Mailer’s 1942 short story “A Calculus at Heaven.”
In Vidor’s New York, the ethnic theme is, at least by Seventies standards, conspicuous by its marginality, immigrant tenement childhoods undergoing the usual sea change upwards into a native, middle-class detachment from the city. Which is a comment on the film’s relationship with its New York audiences, rather than an unfriendly criticism of a perspective close enough to Vidor’s own.
If the expressionist staircase of John’s stuffy childhood home reminds one of something from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, it is an anachronistic reminder, since an expressionist strain had appeared in Twenties Hollywood. This strain was stirred by a Variety of factors, among them emulation of the German art film and the influence of expressionist theater on all the dramatic arts. It was also partly due, I suspect, to the connections between an individualist Romanticism (whose middle- and lowbrow forms loom so large in the American cinema) and Expressionism—which can be considered as Romanticism shorn of its individualism by Europe’s changing scene, but still concerned with the cosmic in man’s moral spirit, at bay against a stifling and corruptive society. The rough pattern continues when the film noir evolves its tight-lipped expressionism to evoke the city’s pressure on such deviant idealists as Chandler’s Marlowe.
Nonetheless, American cinema expressionism remains relatively stylized, for expressionism proper requires an interaction of individual social and philosophical tensions which Hollywood optimism and individualism tend to chill or to restrict to certain mood-states or genres concerning supposedly anomalous subcultures (horror films or private-eye thrillers). A rhapsodic expressionism appears only fitfully, as in THE INFORMER, John Ford’s study of guilt in civil-war-torn Ireland. Welles, in particular, blurs the boundary between lyricism and expressionism by studies of megalomania which can be taken as liberal, but also Nietzschean, criticisms of American ambition and individualism. THE CROWD begins roughly where THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS leaves off, at least insofar as it picks up the theme of the oppressively well-to-do family’s willful young scion being thrown into the world, getting his comeuppance, and learning to muck in.
Vidor’s ending evokes, perhaps, more than merely the title of Lon Chaney’s LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (made in the same year, for the same studio). Chaney was a kind of home-grown Emil Jannings, albeit drawing more from a kind of middle-to-lowbrow Gothic which, like expressionism, was a development out of Romanticism (Dumas, Sue and their successors). In FREAKS, Chaney’s director, Tod Browning, produces what is surely the extreme statement of the possibilities of maintaining one’s morale in situations tempting to paralysis and self-pity. One suspects that Jannings’s angst, like Garbo’s, went increasingly against the developing American trend away from tragedy, which would be resented as “self-pity” if indulged in without some balance of hope, or toughness, or the ingredients of the soap opera. THE CROWD certainly looks like a deliberate rejection of self-pity, its integrity lying in the extent to which it indulges it before the hero rallies his forces. (One wonders if, just as Billy Wilder remembered the office for THE APARTMENT, so Preston Sturges remembered Vidor’s film for the conclusion of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, whose ironies are exhilaratingly abrasive rather than inspiring.)
While Welles is fascinated by a gigantesque life force in hollowness or decay, and presents attained success as somehow monstrous, Vidor is more likely to celebrate that normal parental love which would bestow all the advantages upon its children. The ebullience of the film’s father is reflected in his prosperous station, normally enough, given a Samuel Smiles optimism about worldly success. And the son shows the same energy and resilience as well as an arrogance, which may be a flaw but is a normal and not unlikable one. Struck by misfortune and then tragedy, that ebullience fulfills itself in a philosophic acceptance which is a profounder spiritual fulfillment—and “inspirationalist” rather than “reformist” in that it all but explicitly rules out the jealousy, bitterness, sadness, or protest which other artists might feel appropriate. But this ultimate optimism is achieved after too much tragedy to be even briefly complacent; and as Professor Bosanquet puts it, “Only that optimism is worth its salt which can go all the way with pessimism and arrive at a point beyond it.” It’s easy to see why Vidor’s affirmation should have meant so much to Hollywood’s most scintillating cynic.
It’s a tribute also to Vidor’s daemon that, at a glance, he should have recognized his lead actor in James Murray, an inexperienced extra whose life story exemplifies a systematic negation of Vidor’s philosophy—with his defensiveness, his apathy, his self-destructive drift to a bum’s condition. It is as if something in his soul never recovered from the lowest point of John’s depression. It would be highly paradoxical to cite the negation of a film’s philosophy by its leading actor as an enhancement of its authenticity. Perhaps their common factor is nothing more definite than a certain recklessness, to which alternative courses were open. Perhaps, too, it was this which Vidor, most physical of directors, recognized at a glance, just as he insists. This critic agrees that love at first sight is not just a possibility but a natural recognition of everything that body and gesture can reveal about a mind. THE CROWD achieves a delirious integrity of pain which isn’t merely a spiritual negativity; and, in so doing, the film is rare in an already too rare genre.
A still from Show People (1928)
Show People (1928)
SHOW PEOPLE was ostensibly produced by Marion Davies—i.e., by MGM for William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane to some. Vidor, stuck with a stage play which he couldn’t bear to finish reading, decided to draw a little inspiration from the career of Gloria Swanson. His Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) begins as a butt for custard pies, rises to greater dignity as Patricia Pépoire, and is recalled to her down-to-earth senses when Billy Boone (William Haines), the actor whom she left toiling at the B-features treadmill, catches her in the face with a custard pie which, in view of Hearst’s objections, became instead “a forceful stream from a syphon bottle.”
The film historians’ emphasis on the more stylized forms of silent comedy (slapstick or Lubitsch) has inclined to eclipse SHOW PEOPLE and its ilk—the straightforward comedy which dips good-naturedly but not unpointedly into satire and near drama. (Cukor’s IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU affords a more recent example.) While the Hollywood setting provides interest and an aura of glamour, it remains (pointedly no doubt, in view of the wide-spread contemporary criticism of Hollywood’s immorality) a place in which the usual moral flaws exact their usual retribution, or forgiveness.
The matter is pointed by an anti-satirical, anti-Pirandellian scene where, at the MGM stars’ table, MGM’s stars all behave just like their screen selves. The tautology is too evident not to have a hint of deadpan irony, as when Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper stares at Marion Davies as Marion Davies, and is suitably impressed. The irony is democratic also, of course. When Billy mocks the romantic kiss in BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT (which Vidor had directed two years earlier), Vidor isn’t criticizing him for it or implying sour grapes any more than he’s agreeing that it’s a reasonably down-to-earth point of view.
Aspiring film actors wait outside the casting director’s office, all slumped, patient or passive. But spunky Peggy and her pa step right up to the hatch, won’t take no for an answer, and do their stuff. It’s all very Harold Lloyd in principle, except that, by a nice irony, their stuff’s as bad as could be. Her demonstration of different emotions—with its resourceful use of an unfolded handkerchief to correspond to a cut, and the casting-office hatch as a close-up frame—is such a mixture of the ingenious and the awful that the casting clerk can’t but stare, boggle, laugh, and let her in. Life has its winners and its losers. Talent without initiative is nothing, whereas initiative without talent has at least a chance of proving itself to be something it didn’t know it was (i.e. awful enough to be amusing) and gradually becoming good enough for Hollywood hokum. For Capra’s slickness and Cukor’s fluid warmth, Vidor substitutes a deliberateness and an energy from which a certain placid ruthlessness emerges. A sufficiently trenchant irony (Peggy and her father, each lost in a private, disparate style of pretension) also has a quality of quiet patience, almost gentleness, as if no energy and enthusiasm could thrive without a certain self-centeredness. They involve sins which are natural enough, and so can be purged more readily and naturally than meanness and other twists. In the end, inspiration and illusion are heads and tails—a matter not so much of morality as of a life force whose roots go deeper than morality as human beings can frame it.
Certainly, pretentiousness is the chief of Hollywood’s occupational hazards, and is the vice of Peggy’s courage; this corresponds to the callowness which is the debased form of John’s eventual resilience in THE CROWD. The line between an occupational hazard and criticism of a system (creative or social) is bound to be somewhat hazy, but Vidor’s interest centers on the individual’s response. Indeed, the suggestion here is that social criticism is, if not altogether irrelevant, at least secondary, so long as the system is free enough to allow individuals their choice, including that of opting out. Perhaps, in the postwar period, Vidor’s concern moves nearer to social criticism, without quite arriving at it. But the youthful Vidor’s emphasis is on the way in which life at every level offers its protections against pretentiousness. The commensalism of the stars’ table is one; Vidor’s affable ironies about BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT are another. And: “Hey, Billy, leave the sob squad and come jump off a rock.” Billy is ready enough to replace the exhausted stuntman and stand-in for Toni, the spaghetti-house waiter turned delicate star. Of all SHOW PEOPLE’s characters, only the comic is consistently himself. And Vidor’s affable ironies about BARDELYS aren’t illogical. For, the exigencies of professionalism apart, there is a deeper synthesis, akin to that underlying THE CROWD’s John looking and laughing at the clown which is” his degradation. If THE BIG PARADE ends in an affirmation, it certainly is not one of romanticism without knockabout, of buddy love against mother love, of Apperson’s compassion without Slim’s expertise at killing.
When Peggy’s mutation into La Pépoire separates her from her lowly and sensible Billy, they bid adieu against back-lot scenery. The apparent innocence of their sexual relationship thus far is an acceptable convention, which Vidor shows no signs of wishing to undermine by even so much as a wink and a nod or a fancy-dress party sequence, let alone one of those verb. sap. fadeouts on a big close-up kiss—which meant as much or as little as each spectator chose, but certainly evoked the swooning sensations of the ellipsis in “Their lips met…” Surely the man who can admire Mélisande’s Amazonian intransigence in The Big Parade can also admire the calm, unstrained relationship of a couple whose feelings for each other exist calmly alongside a kind of rich yet latent sensuality. (A corresponding patience is evoked in Renoir’s Les Cahiers du Capitaine Georges.) And something of the same calm appears in Billy’s conspicuous lack of envy or resentment at Peggy’s success, although it is her success which parts them. This absence of resentment in conspicuous enough, I think, to strike those spectators who don’t get around to thinking of it as a corollary to the conclusion of THE CROWD, or relating it to the constructive faith of the bad girl’s mother-figures in DUEL IN THE SUN and RUBY GENTRY. It’s a crucial moral affirmation. In his way, Billy continues to love his Peggy, he doesn’t pine, and this resilience is managed in a way that hasn’t the coldness of the “cool.”
Vidor also manages the rather daunting task of poking fun at slapstick, a feat achieved thanks to his sensitive eye for physicality. (The jumps which the cops do as they run are just a bit too deliberate, too heavy.) A similar nuancing of comic business occurs when Peggy, having been brought to her senses, continues the funny business in a manner which isn’t exactly reverent but is imbued with a quality of spiritual liberation. In an earlier scene, the director instructs her, “Don’t anticipate,” and we anticipate her anticipating, which is a neat and subtle twist.
An amazing comic chase, where everything runs along including a laid-out corpse, anticipates the more Boschian flights of Tex Avery (although this was, of course, the era of the great Ub lwerks and other crazy cartoonists). Although Vidor is hardly remembered as a comic director, SHOW PEOPLE’s smooth nuances enable it to be seen forty-five years later with very little “making allowances,’ even of the intuitive sort which one practices unconsciously—and it whets one’s appetite for all those other early Vidors which weren’t remembered by that most unreliable of oracles, the critical consensus.
A scene still from Hallelujah! (1929)
Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) lives with his mother’s family in a ramshackle one-room hut in South Carolina. When he goes up-river with his younger brother to sell the year’s cotton crop, Zeke meets up with Chick (Nina Mae McKinney), who rapidly persuades him to gamble the family’s money away to her lover Hot Shot (William Fountaine). Zeke won’t let his family be robbed so easily, even when Hot Shot, who isn’t all that anxious for a showdown, pulls a gun. But Zeke ‘s very courage is one of the factors that get his younger brother killed, and he returns to the village with his body. Plunged into an ecstasy of grief and guilt, he discovers a vocation as revivalist preacher. Chick comes to sneer and finds herself stirred; but after Zeke has baptized her by total immersion in the river, the two elope, Zeke finding work in a sawmill. Chick is bored by her day-long solitude and her man ‘s poverty and fatigue, and abandons him when Hot Shot returns for her. Zeke pursues them; the carriage sheers off a forest road; Zeke throttles Hot Shot; and Chick, injured in the crash, dies in his arms. Zeke serves his prison sentence and returns to his family—all passion spent, all crime purged, his conscience cleansed, strumming his banjo.
This long-cherished project of Vidor’s could only be realized when the advent of sound persuaded MGM to gamble on the popularity of spirituals and jazz as the film’s musical accompaniment. So there’s much to be said for John Kobal’s contention that it’s really a musical. While I’d argue that it is and it isn’t (since the music accompanies rather than expresses most of the climaxes), its story is clearly a progenitor of Hollywood’s sideline in Negro religiosity (GREEN PASTURES, CABIN IN THE SKY) on the one hand, and sexual operettas à la CARMEN JONES and PORGY AND BESS on the other.
The cotton-picking Negroes, contented on their little patch of land, don’t carry Uncle Tom overtones, for Vidor celebrates the same life style for the enterprising white community of OUR DAILY BREAD. This film’s contrast of rustic frugality and slick cheaters corresponds to the city-country dichotomy featured in innumerable American films (from WOMAN OF THE WORLD through SUNRISE and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, right on down to its pointed rebuttal in MIDNIGHT COWBOY), and featured more consistently in Vidor’s work than most. Here, certainly, the film affirms the values of the family, the land, the rural community, and (at least in its emphasis on diligence, frugality, hard work, and family individualism) the Puritan ethic.
But things aren’t quite so simple. Vidor, interviewed by Positif, described the film as a contrast between sex and religion, and a “struggle” between good and evil. But interview remarks can’t always be taken as definitive, for a variety of reasons. This description implies a far less interesting intrication of factors than that given in his autobiography: namely, his sympathetic interest in the southern Negroes whom he knew as a youth—not only in “the sincerity and fervor of their religious expression,” but also ‘ ‘the honest simplicity of their sexual drives,” such that “the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.” And I would certainly agree with the Catholic critic Henri Agel that, ferocious as Vidor’s film is, its impression is of an unleashing of elemental forces rather than of evil in its fundamentalist senses. Charles Barr sees Vidor’s film as a genuine tragedy—a conflict between two rights rather than right and wrong.
It’s true that the scenario is dominated by an obvious moral polarity, family affection vs. an apparently passionate sexuality. For Agel, the “tragic flaw” of Negro vitality is a volatility of all passions, good and bad, so that Chick, Zeke, and perhaps even Hot Shot become, through the very strength of their passions, the childlike instruments of an evil which remains beyond and outside them. 2 It would be surprising if Vidor saw a specifically racial trait here. Emotional intensity characterizes most of his principal characters, and neither Slim the hardhat in THE BIG PARADE nor Colonel Rogers in NORTHWEST PASSAGE proves any less remorseless than his Negro blood brother. Zeke’s revenge situation is crucial to Vidor’s morality—revenge being both a natural impulse and a destructive one, and of varying degrees of legitimacy depending on its social context. Accepted as a moral duty in Wild West movies, its moral permissibility in a backwoods context in the
Twenties is bound to be less clear-cut than the legal disallowance of it. And a certain ambivalence about it is natural and normal enough, not least on one who, like Vidor, combines individualism and a sense of spontaneous community. Pity and self-control, as countervailing factors to the impulse for revenge, are also universal moral matters for Vidor, not racial ones—a point strengthened by the ferocity of Jewel, the white preacher, in RUBY GENTRY, as well as by a parallel infatuation in OUR DAILY BREAD. Vidor is clearly right in assuming that Zeke will retain our sympathies despite his crime.
The moral might seem purely conventional, except that our sympathies are not so much split as doubled between an eroticism which is at least a deeply moving counterfeit for passion, and a religious vocation which, being a product both of family grief and of frustrated infatuation, is equally a counterfeit for the deeper, everyday piety represented by Zeke’s family and community. Forty years later, Vidor saw the film again and found Zeke’s vocation admirable, as a positive reaction to suffering. This admiration is evinced in the film itself, although the story line continues by suggesting that the revivalist vocation is somewhat hysteric and that the family represents a more stable human effort. It is, of course, an open question as to whether this is a general statement about religion on Vidor’s part, or simply what’s best for Zeke. But the repudiation of narrow and self-conscious religion, as against human participation, seems implicit in some of his other films.
That this involves something very different from Hays Code piety is suggested by Zeke’s crime passionel and its psychological consequences (or inconsequences). As Chick and Hot Shot speed away into the forest in their horse-drawn carriage, Zeke blasts away at them with his shotgun, as if ready, in his rage, to risk killing the girl whom he might have felt he wanted to rescue. His pursuit on foot of a horse-drawn carriage could be hopeless, were his terrible willfulness not lending wings to his feet, for he runs with almost magic speed. (One suspects that Vidor indulged, however slightly, in fast motion effects, just as he did at the end of OUR DAILY BREAD.) Thus Zeke is gifted with a superhuman, inspired effort of the kind that compels fate (and corresponds to Apperson’s limping pilgrimage after Mélisande).
Zeke’s “prayer” is answered (by a ferocious Old Testament God?). The carriage sheers off the road, and though Chick lies injured, he leaves her lying where she is, while he attends to Hot Shot. At this excited moment, one is more likely to notice Zeke’s putting hatred before concern than to think of some longrange rationalization (e.g. Hot Shot, the snake who might creep off, is the demon lover who is Chick’s homme fatale, so killing him might be freeing her). All the same, it’s doubtful if Vidor is criticizing the indiscipline of rage more than he’s allowing us to admire a human and moral rage which, however ambivalent or hysterical, (1) would be justified in Western and hillbilly dramas, (2) is a crime passionel, and (3) is a passionate hubris rather than a subhuman or an inhuman response to a man whose own violence was largely responsible for Zeke’s brother’s death as well.
It seems likely that Vidor’s ambivalence (the assertion of conflicting values between which Zeke is torn) is not a criticism of Zeke but a condition of the scene’s pity and terror—not least that terror of conflicting guilts and pities which drives too many of us to simplistic moral codes. Zeke, like an agent for the Old Testament God, is, in retaliation, both just and unjust. Hence the scene’s terrible exhilaration. For anguish and satisfaction—which logically might seem to mitigate each other, to create a negative feedback—can also be so patterned as to produce a positive one, and escalate into a passionate acceptance of opposites, a “marriage of heaven and hell.” And from this vicious circle Zeke emerges, by the boldest of twists, his crime expiated, his soul freed, his loyalties renewed. Also startling is the completeness of his emancipation from an attachment which one can never believe was merely sensual, and the exuberance with which he returns to a future of domesticity and toil.
It retains a certain ambiguity, since the prison sentence asserted by the narrative is denied by the cinematic continuity. We’re told that so many years of jail gave Zeke a chance to come to terms, perhaps with remorse and morality. But what we see is an almost insolently carefree murderer returning to the bosom of his family to live happily ever after. Prison couldn’t break him either. Thus a hypothetical moral chastisement is denied by our experience of the last of a series of dramatic reversals. Rapid and strong, they maintain an ambiguity that must be distinguished from melodramatic imprecision. Is Zeke’s apparent absence of remorse childish? or childlike? or hysteric? or maintained by an antisocially puritancial fury? or a confidence in God’s forgiving crimes passionels? or conscientiously justified? or insolently unrepentant? A variety of possibilities dance in our minds; the last three loom largest in mine. Equally, Chick’s dying cry (“Oh Zeke, I’m broken in two!”) generates tension for its alternative possibilities. Is this her feminine wheedling or her dying pain?
Nor is this ambiguity resolved by the immediately succeeding surprise: the style of her dying is such that, as Agel notes, she seems “washed of all perversity at the moment of quitting the earth, and filled with a childlike terror.” (We will see the ambiguity in Lewt’s manner of dying in DUEL IN THE SUN.) The moral underpinnings here seem to me to be both an almost amoral transcendentalism (freed of ego, her energy becomes pure) and a maintained morality (death is terror because she is selfish). One says “because she is selfish” rather than “because she has sinned.” Perhaps man’s Original Sin, wished on him by his body’s isolation rather than by its desires, is the uncertainty of solitude, which only a transcendental sense of oneness can overcome. Thus, even deathbed terror is deprived of all those overtones which, whether Puritanical or Catholic, emphasize being taken to account for acts. By the process of dying, Chick is forgiven, and freed.
Equally subtle is Zeke’s fall from his preacherhood. For a question arises. Why shouldn’t he marry Chick, and carry on preaching? She could play the part of a minister’s wife while his vocation affords her, as presumably it might, the excitement and the money she requires. No doubt there are very real obstacles in her scandalous past, her relationship with Zeke’s brother’s killer (so far as his family is concerned), and her fixation on city-slicker pressures. All this enables the incompatibility of his infatuation and his vocation to pass without question. But such incompatibilities, given Vidor’s sense of sturm-und-drang, might exist only to be overcome.
The real obstacle is indicated by the details of Zeke’s succumbing, which reveals to them two key factors: her absolute dependence on immediate sensual excitements, and Zeke’s moral weakness. Her “bad faith” during her conversion is not of a gross and obvious kind. Ambivalent as is the ecstasy of her cries as Zeke dips her in the waters of baptism, her impressionability is not a kind that we can easily or contemptuously disown. But when he succumbs to her provocations, in a forest, without question of marriage, his reckless acquiescence exposes his sense of his moral unworthiness, and he unhesitatingly abandons a vocation which less honestly spontaneous souls might have continued to affect. Zeke’s moral integrity is all the more remarkable given the notorious willingness of revivalist preachers, black and white, either to enjoy the consolations of sistren so deeply moved that their feelings transcend fundamentalist prohibitions, or to tolerate hypocrisies which are no more serious for being sexual than those with which the more decorously established churches so depressingly contrive to coexist.
Up to a point, Chick expresses a city-slicker treachery, improvidence, and greed (to contrast with rural diligence and thrift) such that her and Hot Spot’s death is a case of the heathen being smitten hip and thigh—both excused by their background and predestined by it to a nasty end. But Chick expresses a kind of truth also. Her conversion involves a “bad faith” of a subtler kind than mere pretense, and it involves something which isn’t quite bad faith at all. An important element in Chick’s capitulation is the fact that she who came to mock the pious is suddenly the only “sinner” who hasn’t repented, which puts her in a position of acute social embarrassment. And Zeke’s rhetorical power and presence is compounded by the exultation of a whple community, a kind of meta-family, making her a little child again.
It might be said that Chick is driven by herd feeling and sensuality (two bad reasons) to a conversion which (because they are bad) ends tragically. But are they so unequivocally bad? What is community, in the deepest sense, without them? So, if secular rather than sacred reasons inspire Chick’s quasi-conversion, they are also reasons as positive and human as those that inspired Zeke’s vocation; and her confusion is just as honest as his. The cries called forth by her feigned (or sincere, or genuinely ambiguous, or naturally overdetermined) sensations of regeneration by grace, in Zeke’s arms, become the ecstatic wails of love, of surrender, and—by no very great stretch of the imagination—orgasm. For sensuality lurks in the very temple of religion, perhaps because each plunges its roots so deep into human nature as to draw its strength from the other. Which is why Vidor’s solution becomes family affection.
But Chick isn’t the only woman in HALLELUJAH! whose inspiration becomes confusion. A middle-aged woman is overcome by hysteria and has to have a bucket of water flung in her face by two deacons, who are standing ready for just this everyday emergency. This “anti-baptism” is also a touch of comic relief, but, like much comic relief, it hints at a lifelong, frustration of instinct by a harsh world. These purificatory immersions—erotic or comic—amidst meadowland, contrast with Zeke’s murder of Hot Shot in marshy forest.
As the buckets of water may remind us, any revivalist preacher is aware of the ambivalence and instability of the all-too-human emotions involved in the conversion experience. So Chick is as much a victim of seduction by the whole revivalist situation as Zeke was of her sexual presence. His ministry abounds in images which one may possibly find appropriate to the simplicity of his flock, but which one may also find cheaply rhetorical (seductive), or more akin to show business than soul-saving. Thus Zeke rides on an ass, surrounded by children robed in white. This GREEN PASTURES-type production is immediately appealing, but I rather hoped Zeke would prefer a more modestly and honestly committed and physical human involvement.
This is not to dismiss his evangelical style as gratuitous or merely a sham. The whole situation of the river baptism in front of the congregation expresses, or counterfeits, the values of family, community, and inspiration which are the film’s other moral pole. They find their most stable form and their most beautiful expression in the overcrowded, patriarchal shack, when Mammy takes each of her younger children on her lap, in turn, and sings them to sleep. The promptness of their response isn’t just a gag (though it is that too, of the gentlest kind); it’s also evidence of a magic power to bestow contentment and a magic generosity going far beyond the grasp of jealousy. Man’s real God is his earthly parents, and they’re black—she’s black—and there’s enough love for all their children to be soothed and content. When Zeke “rocks” Chick on his knee into the river of salvation, he is touching on the same emotions in her, emotions which only a real family, and an evolution into the parental role, can satisfy.
Mammy adopts a friend’s daughter, Missie Rose, “as her own daughter” (in a sidelong reference to the broken family patterns so common since slavery), so that Zeke can grow up alongside her, come to love her, and marry her. (The parallel with Mrs. Apperson’s command, and with the direct family continuity, is clear. And so, perhaps, is that with the incestuous rage of Ruby Gentry’s brother). Later, Rosie sings Zeke to sleep, as his mother had done for his younger siblings. And, on losing him, she clings to his knees, or searches, wailing, for him, through the forest (like Apperson’s Mélisande). Her womanly paroxysms and her strong patience contrast with Chick’s childlike, sensual, and impatient attack. After all, it is possible to imagine that, with a little more restraint on Chick’s part, the premature seduction in the forest would never have taken place, and that Zeke’s “bad faith” would have remained unrevealed to him.
We may take this train of thought further. Chick’s impulsiveness is honesty, a touchstone that reveals Zeke’s dishonesty and frees him from a false vocation, to his real piety. But the film’s individual moments and private confrontations are so powerful in immediate impact that it is easy to overlook both the moral tensions arising from the shocks they create as they succeed one another, and the power of all the scenes of community— the one-room home, the funeral, the baptism, and Zeke’s return to the bosom of his family. In contrast, the saloon crowd— at first jolly enough (with Victoria Spivey singing a jazz blues, and giving it that dignity)—scatters as soon as a shooting looks like trouble.
The feelings of true community, at the funeral, are as orgiastic as any others. And if one considers Zeke’s vocation a false one, they are also misleading, saturated as they are with family contrition. Maybe Vidor is criticizing the negative excesses of community feeling, and an excess of guilt and shame. At this point, error becomes so natural that one can see why Vidor’s transcendentalism has to be founded on a dynamism of resilience, rather than on the ideals of impeccability which come only too easily to rationalism. Here, perhaps, Vidor’s vision reveals one of the tension points which are its inspiration. On one hand, man needs a strong community and a strong morality. On the other hand, community and morality both involve obligations which may limit a man’s freedom. By and large, Vidor’s heroes choose freedom rather than community; THE WEDDING NIGHT condemns the sense of community which HALLELUJAH! upholds. Perhaps the earlier film crosses the color-bar as an unconscious expression of its nostalgic impossibility for Vidor, while his “ideal” community—the one in OUR DAILY BREAD— involves a pointed repudiation of the past.
Henri Agel compares Chick’s frailties to Eve’s. Maybe such a reading comes more easily to Catholicism than to Puritanism; for Puritan piety—more concentrated on the family, and on teaching at mother’s knee—can tolerate misogyny rather less than can the Catholic hierarchy of celibate males. But Biblical patterns don’t apply too exactly here, since it is not God the Father who fashions a mate for his “son,” but rather a strong and gentle matriarch who conceives as well as nourishes all her children, and who can find a bride for her first-born. Nonetheless, Agel’s comparison conveys all the affection which, for all her frailties, Zeke and Vidor (and we) cannot but feel for the woman whose mercurial provocations are her vitality’s response to the exasperating and anomic conditions which are all she has known. As it is, they criss-cross HALLELUJAH’S deeper moral slant effectively enough for the film to be read (as Ado Kyrou reads it) as a celebration of desire. It can also be read as a double tragedy, of the disrupted love implied by Zeke’s instant response to her and by her surrender to his preaching— the nearest to belonging she is ever to get. One need only compare Nina Mae McKinney’s forked-lightning charm, as Chick, with Sher merely decorative presence in Zoltan Korda’s SANDERS OF THE RIVER.
If Vidor’s sense of bodies is most easily recognized in its erotic mode, it is part of a fuller range of physical sensibility. Money apart, Zeke is too tired by working in a sawmill to take Chick out at nights for the fun she craves. And something as hard, prosaic, and familiar as physical fatigue in a workaday context was well on its way out of Hollywood’s ken. I suspect that, after an initial period of “stage stylization,” the sense of prosaic physicality in American films follows a falling curve from the Twenties through the Thirties to a nadir in the Forties, where its nearest equivalent is the emphasis on oppressive bourgeois interiors. The Fifties brought it back, with Method acting and Elia Kazan (whose complementarity to Vidor will be touched on briefly later).
Here, the scenes stressing Zeke’s sawmill fatigue also happen to turn into a little documentary on work-processes. It’s not simply because of the strong contrasts-within-continuity which such processes may allow, if forcefully cut, but for the same reason underlying Vidor’s earlier combination of what is, in effect, an exposition of the processes in cotton preparation, with a musical number. Vidor’s interest in work is altogether more down-to-earth than usual in Hollywood at the time, as may be suggested by a comparison with Victor Fleming’s RED DUST. That film’s tourist-exotic equivalent— details about rubber preparation in the tropics—doubles as, believe it or not, a series of allusions to Jean Harlow’s bosom! (It’s a series of references too complex to detail here, but it involves the fanning of ewe’s udders to turn their milk to cheese.)
For today’s spectators Vidor’s interest in cotton as work may be eclipsed, initially at least, by sentimental associations with cotton as emblem of the South’s slavebased prosperity, and by early sound equipment which boxes the musical numbers up into long (or static, or group) shots, minimizing the choreography that became possible a few years later. Otherwise the film moves fast, even by Thirties standards; and Seventies audiences, accustomed to slower tempi or more forceful close-ups, may lose a quarter of an hour or more in adjusting to its pace and relaxing their guard against a sentimentality which (particularly at that speed) may be difficult to distinguish from stereotype. Its classic status is likely to be first apparent from Vidor’s keen eye for supple and adaptive energy; for religious sentiment in its physical mode; for sexuality as an exasperated scream of the spirit; for the exuberance of the rascally and the ferocious.
Vidor often seems to be, like Blake’s Milton, of the devil’s party—without knowing it, although no doubt suspecting it— and entertaining a more than sneaking sympathy for energy, even when destructively misled, rather than dull correctitude. Even Vidor’s idea of the family accords with Blake’s notion of the diabolical (that is, the divine) in being founded, not on morality, still less on society’s need for stable units, but on something altogether warmer and in the best sense animal—nearer, in fact, to what Norman Mailer called “hip” in his essay, “The White Negro.” The general differences between Vidor and Mailer hardly need comment, and the interest of our comparison lies precisely in the fact that Vidor must transcend a framework which is essentially rural, Texan, and “square,” while Mailer’s definition of ‘ ‘hip” depends on city anomie. Both converge, however, on a sense of nervous will, of violence and bodily resilience, of body-mind reflexes attaining unity with a cosmic pulse, of man’s difficult mixture of interchange with and resistance to his surroundings.
The simultaneity of religious and erotic sensations during Chick’s baptism by Zeke is both a hip insight and a transcendental one. The overlap between the two may seem less freaky if one thinks how Whitman’s vitalism can be projected in one direction towards the ethic of nationand character-building by work, and in the other direction towards polymorphous joys la Ginsberg. The transition figure between Mailer and Vidor is Hemingway; in certain respects, Vidor’s NORTHWEST PASSAGE is “School of Hemingway.” The rural, puritan side of Vidor is more clearly and simply displayed in Wellman, and although Vidor condemns the citified hipsters in HALLELUJAH!, the sense of contradiction inspires Agel’s admirable qualification of the film, for all its speed and discipline, as somehow “baroque’ ‘—a description perfectly catching its complicated moral and dramatic strains.
While the film’s affirmation of the Puritan ethic is of the essence, French Catholic and Cahiers critics tend to remain satisfied with a general description of Vidor’s films as “Puritan” in a way which begs a multitude of questions. Which particular aspect of which particular variety of Puritanism has the critic in mind? Certainly Vidor’s Puritanism can’t be equated with original “grim” Puritanism, whereby only a repressive theocracy— and work considered as a curse, a curb, and a duty—can save man’s depravity from itself. Seastrom’s THE SCARLET LETTER suggests that such Calvinism wasn’t altogether a spent force in America in the Twenties. In OUR DAILY BREAD, Vidor’s study of a tightly cohesive community, the sinner-girl makes a getaway to the city where presumably her callow soul will be a little less miserable. And liberty of escape is clearly as essential to Vidor’s position as it is contrary to Calvinism’s double predestination.
At any rate, Puritanism was profoundly influenced by the alternative Protestant option—the Deist or Unitarian one—which was to stress the closeness of man’s nature to God. Thus, it countered the notion of total depravity with an equally extreme opposite: a belief in man’s natural goodness, which led towards “noble savage,” democratic, romantic, and transcendentalist positions. One of the problems in discussing what may be meant by Puritanism or Protestantism in twentieth-century art is the extraordinary variety of contrasts and combinations possible between the two positions. Broadly, however, the great American expansiveness seems to have given an optimistic cast to the Protestant ethic, work coming to seem both self-fulfillment and a way of improving society by self-salvation. To this extent Vidor’s films generally seem to belong to the Hollywood Old Guard (or rather to the American cinema which Hollywood all but killed) in seeing work as a fulfillment of human instincts in a way in which “fun morality” cannot be.
When the Cahiers critics call Vidor a Puritan they seem to have in mind a sort of Bible Belt fundamentalist, relying heavily on the more bloodthirsty Old Testament verses about the punishment of sinners and heathen. It is to this attitude that Robert Aldrich pays lip-service in SODOM AND GOMORRAH, where America, like the Hebrews, should go its rural way, while the cities of fun morality are wiped out for effete self-indulgence.
To me the transcendentalist strain in Vidor’s work seems to be stronger than this—as strong, indeed, as in Moby Dick, whose spiritual mainspring is surely the conflict between the grimly Puritanical and the transcendentalist options. Hasn’t Ahab become more evil than the Great White Whale? Isn’t this one aspect of nature, to whose rich, pre-moral contradictions it is disturbingly difficult to allot moral categories at all? I doubt whether any modern reader can avoid asking himself whether Moby Dick—far from being as evil as critics generally seem content to accept—doesn’t correspond to Blake’s Tiger, Tiger; and whether Ahab’s whaler isn’t a dark satanic mill. My own sympathies are quite clear. Ahab is a contaminated hero, and Moby Dick is a white knight, the champion of his own kind, the true representative of God at sea. And I would have plunged a knife in Ahab’s back to save the whale.
It’s obvious how the very misanthropy of the grim Puritan must involve him in tremendous difficulties when it comes to hating the sin but not the sinner. But the transcendentalist can’t escape them either, for man’s nearness to God doesn’t save him from the nastier propensities, of which evidence is only too abundant. The smiling face of transcendentalism tends to remain blind and silent before the jungle snarl of Social Darwinism, or the transmogrification of double predestination into Manifest Destiny, or theories of justification by crude life-force, or brute cynicism. Indeed, the transcendentalist vocabulary of freedom and faith in humanity may rapidly turn into notions whereby evil in some form or another— drink, or Communism—is at once absolutely everywhere and so alien as to be expellable through the brief enforcement of a rigid theocracy. Transcendentalist tendencies to high ideals can also be expressed in grimly Puritanical terms about the unacceptability of whatever isn’t extremely ideal. “We needs must love the highest when we see it” can rapidly become a pretext for punishing those who prefer another hierarchy, or need a longer acquaintance than one quick look. Indeed, transcendentalism and grim Puritanism are probably natural bedfellows, happiest when neither can pull all the blankets on its own side.
In Vidor’s films one can see the optimism of an Emerson or a Whitman taking on a much, sharper, more Nietzschean edge. It’s easy enough for a phrase like “self-reliance is God reliance,” to imply or accommodate “And the devil take the hindmost,” or Vidor’s “l don’t like failures.” Vidor, like Whitman, contains multitudes. In the THE BIG PARADE, he admired both Apperson’s forebearance and the riveter’s killer instincts; in HALLELUJAH! both Zeke’s piety and his ferocity deserve our respect, as complementary rather than contradictory aspects of an underlying élan vital. Perhaps something like a transcendentalist criticism of Puritanical narrowness and otherworldliness underlines Zeke’s pseudo-vocation and his fall from grace, while the crime passionel affords a grimmer variation on Nietzsche’s “A little revenge is healthier than no revenge.” Puritan individualism may have lent itself only too easily to the secularized competitiveness of “the survival of the fittest;” but Vidor prefers to celebrate vitalism whereby work is a mode of reconciliation between individual, community, and Nature.
Street Scene (1931)
Street Scene (1931)
Elmer Rice’s play centers on young Sam (William Collier, Jr.), who must escape from the New York tenements to achieve the education he deserves. But, in his struggle to free himself from the environment whose prisoners his friends and neighbors have become, his deadliest enemy is his love for Rose (Sylvia Sidney). And he has almost to be forced from the tenement nest to keep faith with himself, and so, perhaps, with those he loves.
STREET SCENE, another essay in screen populism, anticipates DEAD END, and wears very much better. As so often happens, though, the slighter film was more successful—not only commercially but also critically—presumably because its theme, juvenile delinquency, enabled it to bathe in the aura of the gangster film. It’s difficult to tell how much of STREET SCENE is Vidor, how much is Elmer Rice, how much is from the original stage production (much of whose cast it shares), and how much is producer Samuel Goldwyn.
Goldwyn’s work lends itself surprisingly well to the auteur theory, with his parallel thematics. On the one hand, he offers us the Goldwyn Girls—early epitome of deodorized (and, one suspects, de-ethnicized) American womanhood—and the spectacular musicals. On the other hand, he produced relatively “Populist” films like STREET SCENE, THE WEDDING NIGHT, and PORGY AND BESS. Both ROMAN SCANDALS and THE SECRET LIFE OF WATER MITTY take the dichotomy into their own structure, whereby a mixture of wish fulfillment, paranoid melodrama, and humor alleviate a realistic mediocrity. Later, Goldwyn’s concern with the family in STREET SCENE and THE WEDDING NIGHT reappears at a higher social level, in the suburban family series of the Forties, which uneasily yokes ingredients from THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES with Korean War era complacency. It’s interesting to wonder what Vidor would have made of PORGY AND BESS, or Sturges or Wilder of WALTER MITTY. (And at this point we abandon auteur theory again, even in its extension to producers, and have to discuss rival Hollywood theories about what the audience wanted. We certainly need a study of the box-office rules of thumb underlying the mixture of realism and wish fulfillment, intimacy and melodrama, in the spectacular musical—notably DAMES, IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, FORTYSECOND STREET, THE PAJAMA GAME, OKLAHOMA!, and WEST SIDE STORY.)
At any rate, STREET SCENE rapidly centers our concern on young Sam’s need to escape and better himself. His primary duty is to renounce his narrow, constricting loyalties, and consecrate his fully-developed talents to a newer, broader, younger America—an American America, without the ethnic divisions and all the hangovers from tired old Europe, which are embodied in his father’s despotism and his neighbors’ frustrated, stagnant, or confused lives. Perhaps the surest guarantee that his individualism isn’t mere selfishness is that his decision cuts him to the quick, and that we can imagine him, after all, returning from his college education to fetch his Rose.
Ethnic vignettes: An operatic Italian and a gloomy Dane perpetuate a pointless and backward-looking argument about whether Columbus or Leif Erikson discovered America. The Italian couple can’t have babies, and the negated assumption of pullulating bambini may be pat but is poignant enough. An embittered wife, turning to adultery to live out a little of her frustrated life force, has considerable sympathy from the film (and prefigures BEYOND THE FOREST). Another obstacle to Sam’s self-emancipation is the severity of his father, whose concepts of family are still rooted in Central European peasant culture (which prefigures THE WEDDING NIGHT).
If Sam’s spiritual father-figure is the Irishman Moran, this corresponds well enough to the historical fact that the Irish, as the last of the Old Migration, did play a considerable role in helping later immigrant groups adapt to America. Moran is a kind of transition figure between the Irish gangster and the Democratic party machine of Tammany Hall. But he’s linked with neither; and as an ordinary, honest American, he can guide Sam into an individualist ambition. That ambition is balanced by Moran’s altruism in urging the youth on to values which he himself cannot comprehend—a relationship, of a son surpassing a devoted father, that evokes THE CHAMP.
Sam, his neighbors, and the film itself, emphatically reject old Abe Kaplan, the atheistic Jewish Marxist, who at first seemed set to be the younger’s guide, philosopher, and friend. The burly Moran wants to punch Abe for his heathenish ideas; and the film seems to feel that Moran’s impulse, although anachronistically crude, and wrong, is so natural, virile, and healthy at heart that it’s spiritually justified. It’s the gut response of inarticulate honesty to all the insidious double-talk of intellectuals (vide MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN). At any rate, it’s the rough-hewn Moran who takes spiritual charge over the sensitive, fervent boy.
Thus STREET SCENE is not only Sam’s story, but also (as its title implies) a cross-section, a slice of life, an omnibus film. In theory at least, it constitutes a neatly unified dramatic structure, involving the youth’s escape, the aids and obstacles contributed by his neighbors, and the big-city pressures which frustrated or limited them, and may do the same to him. If the film had achieved this, it would have been exceptionally sophisticated for its time. As it is, it comes so near as to provoke, in this critic at least, an absolutely unjustified impatience—an obsession with its failure. The concentration on an individual hero, and the wider canvas, come to cross purposes rather than a counterpoint. And there’s probably a multitude of reasons why the film gives the effect of being both direct and sidelong, deeply moving yet never quite memorable, almost neo-realist (Sam seeks an education as the “bicycle thief” seeks a bicycle) in theme, yet profoundly anti-neo-realist, almost anti-Populist, in spirit. Perhaps the American scene, then, was too complex for anyone to clarify within any Hollywood framework—or any one artist’s mind.
Vidor feels he was hamstrung by Samuel Goldwyn’s excessive respect for a prestigious stage play (as he seems to have been, later, by PORGY AND BESS). Vidor finds himself with what is virtually a single set: the street and the front facade of an apartment house. This spatial constraint isn’t particularly helpful in tracing the interaction of family groups, though Vidor’s camera movements and alterations of angle are as exceptionally resourceful as one would expect.
The limitations within which he has to work may be illustrated by reference to Renoir’s roughly comparable THE LOWER DEPTHS. While the latter is hardly a tidy film, its bums and failures are both individuals and a group. A sense of negative coexistence and occasional, unreliable, or involuntary interaction between separate (indeed, anomic) individuals is eased by the very structure of the sets—a courtyard and a dormitory—which have an extensive existence in depth. Similarly, THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE juxtaposes a printing-works, a courtyard and a laundry—three continuous areas.
New York tenement streets and fire escapes in summer could equally be a kind of “courtyard.” One can imagine Vidor—with or without the precedents of BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING or SOUS LES TOITS DE PARIS—extending his own tracking movements in THE CROWD, and grouping the apartment windows in a manner prefiguring Hitchcock’s way with a similar facade in REAR WINDOW, with its brilliant re-introduction of the third dimension beyond a facade. But one suspects that such a vision of New York would have cut against Vidor’s grain.
What is at issue is not, as Lindgren-era theory might have supposed, some cinematic imperative whereby the disunities of space and time must be observed as dogmatically as human fidgetiness can contrive. There is, after all, an infinity of camera angles and opportunities for cuts even if the subject is only a sleeper immobile in a chair. The problem is rather one which Vidor, as a lyricist of individualism, isn’t temperamentally best suited to resolve: the reconciliation of individual decisions and destinies with a socio-environmental pressure which is at once continuous and relentless, but which is expressed through a diversity of human predicaments—Sam’s friends and neighbors.
It isn’t merely a matter of “the individual versus the mass.” Merely to pose the issue in those terms would be to forget HALLELUJAH! , OUR DAILY BREAD, and NORTHWEST PASSAGE. In these three films the individual fulfills himself within a thoroughly cohesive group in which he shares one direct, common relationship (the family) or purpose (the military expedition). But STREET SCENE depends upon a diversity of purposes within an apparent group. Each individual, or couple, struggles to retain a private integrity, not only against one another (which, as direct conflicts, are easier to handle) but alongside one another, in abrasive coexistence (which is altogether more insidious and evasive). They have a common antagonist in “the city.” The problem lies in the network of unity (everyone is at bay against the city atmosphere), disunity (each apartment isolated), and conflict (as Sam surmounts obstacles and temptations).
In a sense, the film has a “collective hero”—it is an omnibus version of John’s fate in THE CROWD. But to the individualist American tradition, and to Vidor, the more individualist form comes more easily. John and Mary, like their homonyms in OUR DAILY BREAD, are as generalized as their Christian names imply, but can never conflict with each other, which is where the crunch begins. In STREET SCENE, our identification with Sam and Rose suggests a deeply moving struggle between them, which the minor characters constrict and interrupt. Conversely, the minor characters remain cameos, so limited in their own spiritual potential as to be neither altogether tragic nor altogether relevant. The faithless wife is not quite what Rose might become if Sam abandons her forever and she marries another. We identify with Sam’s rebellion, but very much less (if at all) with his father’s pain. And so on. A major film becomes a minor one—but a minor one teasingly implying more than it can ever quite say. Unlike Chabrol, I prefer the failed great film to the successful minor one.
Behind its failure lies a long American tradition, whereby America’s expansionist fluidity and her individualist creed, reinforcing one another, combine with a sense of national greatness to impose particular confusions on studies of groups and communities. STREET SCENE is a melting-pot equivalent to Winesburg Ohio or Our Town. and in these works also one is struck by the absence of a straightforward and functioning social framework. They are studies in loneliness, or else the dead appear so that a moral-cosmic reference occludes the social pattern of purpose and cross-purpose. (Whereas Faulkner elongates what are essentially social-moral chains of cause-and-effect into long, devious connections which feel more like Greek tragedies underpinned by an Old Testament sense of sin.)
In contrast, European films have usually found it easier to manage cross-sections and pluralities of coexistence, whether urban-pastoral (LE QUATORZE JUILLET) or pessimistic (HOTEL DU NORD). Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is something of a tour de force in its adaptation of a European theme to American styles. (Wyler’s mixture of virtuosity, caution, and moral solidity is another matter, and I think he has many of the traditional bourgeois virtues as well as an out-of-fashion bourgeois caution.) Eventually, of course, “omnibus Populism” became an American genre also (see my remarks on REAR WINDOW in my book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock). It might be illuminating to consider STREET SCENE as a Chayefsky—Delbert Mann subject, done in the style of BACHELOR PARTY.
One must of course remember that German and American populism, of one sort or another, precedes the French variety, and that, so far as social issues go, Clair is much remoter than Capra or Vidor. Nonetheless, Hollywood populism faded in the mid-Thirties. Meanwhile, its French counterpart rose to its apogee along with the Popular Front, the war years inspired the English to MILLIONS LIKE US and IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY, and Italian neo-realism thrived in the postwar years, before Hollywood remembered a genre it had forgotten. In STREET SCENE one can sense the reservations which brought Hollywood populism into eclipse.
Fluidity and individualism apart, the pitch for American screen populism was further queered by the problem of ethnocultural plurality, quite apparent here. The Moran-Kaplan animosity in STREET SCENE has some reference to religious animosities and earlier plays or song titles (Abie’s Irish Rose, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”) as well as to the Democratic party’s rejection of Socialism. Moran’s tough-guy style, all looming hulk and meaty fists, harks back to EASY STREET and BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and its somewhat anachronistic perpetuation through the blarney (not to say kitsch) of John Ford’s Victor McLaglen. If Hollywood hadn’t maintained its remarkable distance from America (for a variety of reasons, some of which are the public’s fault as much as the producers’), ethno-cultural issues would surely have loomed much larger in movies than they seem to have done, and in forms less cryptic than those at which we shall glance when discussing THE WEDDING NIGHT. But, as Hitchcock observed, America’s cultural plurality posed special problems, driving Hollywood to the alternative strategy, concentrating on a few stock types, contexts, and comic-sentimental modes, and replacing real social connections and frictions by stylized high-class WASP settings or individualistic social vacuums. STREET SCENE is hard hit, forcing it to raise issues which it must encapsulate in cameo or jest. (The running gag about Italian vs. Danish versions of history stands in for, and negates, more violent running battles.) The issue is not merely one of social realism, but of catching the whole warp and woof of intimate personal experience.
This isn’t to insist on social generalization in every story. (In any case, this film’s ending has one, as it is: the individualist’s duty is to himself.) It’s as much a matter of tracing the ascendancy and vulnerability of emotion between individuals, to which Vidor might seem one of the best-suited American directors. “What’s my career matter when I could be with you?” sobs the young STREET SCENE student to his beloved. And Vidor isn’t afraid of his weakness, perhaps because (unlike Hawks, Walsh, and other directors whose tough dead-pans are as drearily restrictive as the English stiff upper-lip) he accepts grief and volatility as among the forms of strong life force, albeit still to be tempered. Of course, Vidor’s studies of enthusiasm maturing don’t have the compassion of John Ford, who, as master of the male tear-jerker, knows that even hard-as-nails working-class audiences will accept a lachrymose hero, so long as his enduring toughness has been established, and especially when his grief is occasioned by the frustration of some stout-hearted desire, like never retiring from the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. It may be that Hollywood toughness was exaggerated by the cynicism of adolescents in big-city tough districts. Country-and-Western music is full of Willie the Weepers; maybe Vidor’s “country and Western” roots have something to do with his willingness to show male “weakness” in family and love situations. We approach from another angle the complex question of Hollywood’s oscillation between extreme sentimentality and extreme toughness—or, rather, violence. The contrast between the two was a staple of the gangster movie of the period (cf. PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, SCARFACE, in descending order of merit), and closely intermeshed with immigrant themes (Cagney is Irish-American, but Robinson and Muni, both Jews, play Italian immigrant figures). The idea of a Chicago gangster loving his ma strikes Seventies audiences as absolutely hilarious, while the notion of emotional consistency implicit in their hilarity seems to me stupid. The Hollywood contrast, however clumsy, is at least an indication of the complicated tangle involving both the ethnic-group conservatism of an immigrant generation and the adaptation by their sons to the seamy side of the Social Darwinist jungle. It’s worth remembering that STREET SCENE and DEAD END are two sides of the same coin: youth’s responses to a combination of city pressures and the obsolescence of one’s parents’ code. Vidor imbues the aim of going to college with a spiritual purposefulness which does have a real meaning. One need only recall the fate of Sylvia Sidney’s other boy friends, who chose the other career, in FURY and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.
All other problems apart, a certain temperamental or attitudinal preference of Vidor’s may well have intervened in accentuating rather than minimizing the disparity between Sam and his neighbors. Vidor is confronted here with a gallery of passive, negative, stagnant, or backward-looking characters. Yet his sympathies go largely to those with will and drive, to the resilient and the protesting rather than to the permanently injured, who become comic or dangerous or just plain mean. In contrast with its European equivalents, the American film seems to condemn most of its characters, to see them as stick-in-the-muds deficient in life force, and to give them some quick pity, maybe, but much too little interest in savoring their quirks—in the way that Pagnol, say, savors those of Raimu in the MARIUS trilogy. Worse, rather than struggling and failing with these failures, we just look back at them. And in this falling off from THE CROWD we are perhaps seeing one reason for the drying up of American populism in favor of crime films and Rooney-Garland pasteurization.
In itself, STREET SCENE’S bracing morality might imply a certain elitism of life force. Environment explains nothing, the argument goes, because some people are able to escape from it; those who cannot must bear some kind of “collective guilt.” In even more primitive terms, “environmentalist” arguments may be turned against themselves thus: To excuse people on the grounds that they are victims of their environment is to imply that they are as corrupt as their environment. This can lead directly into a kind of Social Darwinist predestinarianism: heathenism and Communism alike breed a corrupt “race” who are virtually irredeemable. Or, in Old Testament terms: Every citizen of Sodom and Gomorrah deserved death because his character was shaped by Sodom and Gomorrah, and any civic virtues he might have possessed were either only apparent or outweighed by corrupt motivations and applications. Thus, the superficially optimistic doctrine of human perfectibility can accommodate a moralized callousness, borrowing from the grim Calvinist notion that all but the elect are radically depraved.
No such condemnation appears in STREET SCENE, explicitly or implicitly; nor could it, without enraging its audience. Nonetheless, the film’s close identification with Sam, mixed with a certain distance from everyone else (except Rose, who, as a woman, is partly exempt), constitutes a careful avoidance of conflict between an identification with failure and a withdrawal of interest for those who are either insufficiently dynamic or undeserving. Vidor had also to contend with anti-immigrant prejudice left over from the Twenties, in the context of which the film’s very subject matter may itself be a positive affirmation.
At the same time, the intensity of the couple’s feeling for each other is dependent on, precisely, the film’s refusal of the sentimental toughness with which Hollywood frequently disguised the harsher aspects of the creed of self-perfectibility. As in SHOW PEOPLE, Sam and Rose each have their own unique destinies; and it is life, as much as New York, that tears them apart. But fidelity to one’s potential—which is also one’s relationship to the infinite—takes pride of place, perhaps, even over the social duty of self-improvement. To that extent, STREET SCENE is as anti-Borzagian as it is antithetical to Renoir’s THE LOWER DEPTHS. Yet the life energy in each of the STREET SCENE lovers creates a gravitational pull so powerful that the separation is pain; and the “comic” tenement creatures are also real enough to be just a little cramped and sad.
The division into acts is palpable, with a “director’s cadenza” here and there. The handful of montage accelerandi are effective enough: the heat; people starting into the frame as if to reiterate the echoing of a shot; and Rose’s descent from the “el,” which is more than merely a visual bravura piece, since the structure over the street, the crowded life in the street, and the loved one among the crowd are like a climactic summation of all the forces that might hold Sam back.
The film’s slice of life is sufficiently moving to provoke a critical obsession with why the current of genius hasn’t flowed through it. Perhaps the reason is its achievement of dramatic suspense and bracing morality at the expense of a loss of identification with most of the cinema’s spectators. It’s as if John in THE CROWD has lost interest in the clown in THE CROWD. STREET SCENE remains a moving companion piece to THE CROWD; but in the later film, Vidor preferred a deep moral perspective to a deep emotional focus, and divided the winner sheep from the loser goats. It would seem that Hollywood’s audiences were prepared to despise screen images which corresponded to their own reality rather than to their own ideals.
Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in The Champ (1931)
The Champ (1931)
In Tijuana, a has-been boxer (Wallace Beery) regularly begins his long climb back up the championship ladder. And, as regularly, falls two rungs back, into the saloon—for all the efforts of his son Dink (Jackie Cooper) and Dink’s gang. But the ex-champ’s sallies into a gaming saloon do win him a race horse; and, at the track, Dink meets his mother Linda (Irene Rich). Long estranged from the boy’s father, she has married a prosperous businessman, who bribes the champ to let her see the boy. The threat of losing Dink spurs the champ into a supreme effort, and he wins the fight which proves to be his last. He dies of a heart attack in the dressing room; and Dink, wailing “I want the champ,” is swept up in his mother’s arms.
THE CHAMP is a late-comer in the cycle of waif stories that seems to have abounded in Hollywood’s early days. One thinks of Chaplin’s THE KID with Jackie Coogan, of Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Lillian Gish, and of Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS, where an unattached kid tags along with the boy and the woman. The theme here, of the improvised or asymmetrical family, clearly complements the family’s disruptions in the bubblings of the melting pot (STREET SCENE, THE WEDDING NIGHT). THE CHAMP combines aspects of both genres. One might also make an analogy with THE LAST COMMAND, and call it THE LAST KNOCK-OUT. Thematically, its closest relative is STREET SCENE: against his will, the boy must leave his home background for a strange new social world whose powers can develop his fuller, truer, freer self. Although Vidor celebrates individual freedom, the antithesis—of spiritual growth by failure, by constraint, by fate—is never far away.
THE CHAMP was made before the repeal of Prohibition, and perhaps the story belongs a little more naturally in some pre-Prohibition American city, or among city strata. But a natural acceptance of illegal drinking and gambling would arouse pressure-group outcries, or goad Prohibitionist audiences into misreading its principal characters as criminal riffraff. So the movie takes place in Tiajuana—which is almost America anyway, being a resort colony just over the California border—and, apart from the opening mention of the Mexican setting, and one brief shot of a Mexican policeman, one might as well be in pre- or post-Prohibition America. Only the automobiles are anachronous.
Vidor rarely mentions the film; maybe he thought of it as just an assignment. The roots of its sentiment certainly plunge into that popular iconography which seems to have appeared first in American newspaper comic sections after 1890, and rapidly spread into movies. A big, burly, kind-hearted brute is either unconsciously destructive or hilariously slow-witted. The spiritual kith and kin of this uncouth father-figure range from the Lon Chaney characters mentioned in our remarks on THE CROWD, through Moran in STREET SCENE, to King Kong, Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN, and even Desperate Dan, the cowboy-cumlogger of The Dandy. (A British kids’ comic character, his American style owes less to strip syndication than to the movie influence.) And Dink’s pals borrow from and contribute to the inter-ethnic kidsgang theme—from Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” (which did appear in British comics), through the Dead End Kids and their mutation into the Bowery Boys, up to their British comic transposition as “Lord Snooty and His Pals.” This theme of the inter-ethnic gang, which is American in origin, marks a third aspect of the family-in-the-melting-pot theme.
The marriage of the champ and Linda was a hasty, romantic affair between cultural incompatibles: the bride a wealthy WASP who has now outgrown her bold flapper’s pseudo-romanticism; the bridegroom, rejected by the socialite world because of his failures in the ring, now returning to the asphalt jungle whence he came. The film thus involves itself in a topical cultural schism. This distinction—between wealthy, rustic—suburban do-gooders and the struggling asphalt-junglers—recurs in DAMES. In THE CHAMP, both types are generous and well-meaning and the conflict is poignant precisely because their life styles are mutually self-exclusive, the story being a tragic conflict between two mixtures of right and wrong.2 So far as moral impeccability goes towards winning our sympathies (which isn’t very far), Linda and Dink’s stepfather would win hands down; but that’s a rather less vital matter than the warm and fallible loyalty of father and son. Dink is distinctly unimpressed by what Linda’s life style offers, and his subjectivity largely determines our rooting interest. We have a double stake in their world: his father’s success, and its effects on them both. Our sense of that world’s temptations (drinking, gambling, a certain brutality) is balanced by the obviously viable freedom of Dink’s life. And our involvement in the champ’s moral success demands that we accept the terms of the world upon which it depends, so that—by one of those logical paradoxes with which dramatic structures abound—the moral dangers of the city world endear it to us against the exhortations of moral prudence. Better to live dangerously than not know how to live.
This balance is very lightly emphasized by two minor details. First: the courts have given the champ custody of the child; maybe a plot convenience, it certainly implies desertion or misconduct by the mother. Second: her husband’s appearance (sleek, smoothly mustachioed, smilingly complacent) puts him somewhere among the rich villain of the cinema’s innocent age, the B-feature rich rancher, and Douglass Dumbrille vs. the Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES and THE BIG STORE. All the same, Linda has clearly lived down her wild-oats irresponsibility, and Dink’s prospective father-to-be behaves very well. Pointedly, the film makes nothing of the tempting and relevant theme of the asphalt jungle potentially corrupting the son as well as the father. Dink seems set to survive, smoothly enough. His pals are as amiable as his father. He’s sensible and disciplined; and a gambling-saloon manager is much less rapacious towards the champ than an easy moralism would have allowed.
Conversely, the film repudiates the reverse pattern, exemplified by the present-day sequence of Griffith’s INTOLERANCE, with its malevolent do-gooders separating the waif and her love child. THE CHAMP’s Linda has exchanged her old flighty irresponsibility for a beautifully controlled impulsiveness. In one lovely scene, a bored and tired Dink leaves his childishly optimistic father at the dice table, finds an abandoned gambling table, swings up on to it with the aplomb of long experience, lies out, tilts his Stetson forward over his eyes, and falls immediately to sleep. It could look like a classic example of atrocious childhood environment. Yet family love survives under such makeshift conditions, as superbly as it does in Zeke’s one-room shack (in HALLELUJAH!). Linda’s husband, who happens to be there, looks down on the boy and discreetly switches off the light against which Dink’s hat had imperfectly shaded his eye. In that unpossessive concern, that quiet acceptance, that neat control over environment, Dink’s father-to-be is established as a man who generously makes his wife’s “immoral” errors his own concern, and who accepts and cherishes her mistakes as his. The film is both wise and tragic in accepting the proposition that love and kindness may exist in radically incompatible terms—which wasn’t so common in Hollywood during the next thirty years.
While accepting (as of course the “wets” would also have done) that alcohol destroyed many people’s lives, the film attains a similar moral balance about gambling and betting, which were also contentious issues. Yes, the champ loses his race horse by gambling; but that’s also how he won it in the first place. Maybe because his hopes are associated with a reliance on luck rather than on the discipline of physical training, luck cancels itself out. After galloping with the fast motion of (the boy’s) inspired will, the horse falls and loses the race. Luck giveth, and luck taketh away. Nonetheless, it is at that race that Dink meets his mother. So maybe that modest degree of moral effort is rewarded by providence—although in initially disturbing ways.
Meanwhile, Linda’s husband’s money keeps the champ going. A close-up emphasizes the hand-out theme. Is a decent welfare to the deserving poor preferable to the pseudo-self-reliance of gambling and betting? Do the rich have a responsibility to their poor “cousins,” even when the poor aren’t especially impeccably deserving, but rather floundering along in a hand-to-mouth, worse-than-usual way? Or are we watching the secret, furtive reliance of the old, boisterous America, somehow degraded, on a step-family representing an alliance of only apparently innocent do-gooders and only apparently smooth Big Business? Does the racetrack encounter establish on-track betting as a socially respectable affair that’s not really so different from its illegal offtrack cousin or from the gambling saloons? Does it thus insinuate a rough-and-ready moral democracy between the respectables and the disreputables? Or merely that His Eye Is On The Sparrow— everywhere?
Hints of military school, if Dink goes with his mother, may or may not seem to threaten American liberty more than they promise to firm up American manliness. (Vidor went to one, and might just be ambivalent about it.) But the question does arise as to whether Dink’s gambling-bed hasn’t an equal and opposite excess, or worse alternative, elsewhere. The champ’s death in triumph makes the film something of an elegy to a lost, free, rascally America, in which Wallace Berry’s female equivalent would be Mae West. The complementary argument to this nostalgia can be found in La Cava’s MY MAN GODFREY: that progressivism and Big Business must provide planned housing for those who may seem just bums but who, given half a chance, won’t be— which is just about how the balance works out in THE CHAMP. Dink’s future is with the charitable rich, whose military academy might constitute too orderly healthy a future for him. But if Vidor accepts that moral worth has nothing to do with the usual do-gooder notions of it, there’s still no sign of his seeing any obligations other than those existing within the biological-adoptive family. I’d doubt whether the film is to be read in a welfare sense. The hand-out close-up also has that note of shame, even in Depression times, that’s so pointedly denied by the first word of HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM.
THE CHAMP relates also to the theme of “immigration shock” (on the analogy of ‘ ‘future shock”) indicated in the notes on STREET SCENE. Dink understands life, and society, and has adapted to it rather better than has the older-generation figure as incarnated by the “Irish” Wallace Beery. It’s the boy who acts as the father’s infinitely tolerant conscience about drinking; who undresses him when he’s hung over; who never loses hope and faith; who trains alongside him as if to keep him going; who even drives the automobile. I don’t know what Mexican laws were at the time, but my distinct impression of anomaly seems related to the simultaneous discussion of whether Dink accepted sweets from his mother (which the champ would resent as a bribe, and which Dink would disdain as charity from a dame) or swiped them (which they both would agree is quite all right).
The scene of the actual theft is punctilious in its detail. Dink monologues aloud as if to reassure us that he’s stealing to give to his friends as much as to himself; and this generous absence of distinction between friends and self easily redeems the equal absence of distinction between others’ property and one’s own. The child-father relationship is a heroic disorder, complemented by the kids’ gang as a peer group that’s often in harmonious internal disagreement. A parent-child relationship is not at all hubris; it’s its reverse, a tour de force that’s finally defeated and resolved by the tragic twist which makes the little man a child again, as he “should” be. Paroxysmatically, he cries “l want the champ!” (like “We want the champ!”), and can find no consolation in the adults and children around him until his mother’s arm, swooping around him and sweeping him away, seems visually to promise a gradual consolation and a new hope.
In terms of movie cycles, it’s easy enough to see in Dink a median term between the silent-era waifs and the precocious, adult-manipulating moppets of Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. lndeed, later child-moppet love duos are anticipated in THE CHAMP when Dink meets his half-sister. Though one may be reading back from later pseudo-precocities, the girl’s provocative interest and the boy’s disdain of ‘ ‘Dames!” do sexualize the scene gently, prettily, and a little incestuously. (Can a half-sister be a future wife, like the adopted sister in HALLELUJAH!, or by analogies in Genesis?) Dink goes on to treat his mother with the same disdain. First she seeks to kiss his mouth, and then, quickly, realizing his feelings, averts his mouth from her own to her cheek. We are almost back in that ambiguous area explored by Goldwyn’s KID MILLIONS, when the plug-ugly who’s pretending to be Eddie Cantor’s long-lost father goes to kiss him on the mouth. This normal-enough peasant family salutation (at moments of intensity) seems to have become increasingly embarrassing, presumably because the WASP scruple had made the mouth-kiss exclusively sexual in America at this time. Family contacts were becoming dephysicalized.
Earlier, the boy strips his hung-over father down to his long johns. Later, when the father begins to undress the tired-out boy, Dink asserts his independence— more than his modesty—by undressing himself. The undressing theme is capped when Dink lets his mother remove his shirt (to his bare chest, a new touch), but objects as she’s about to drop his trousers; and she very sensibly respects his frail, manly modesty, rather than following the expectedly rigid middle-class line about hygiene. In the print of THE CHAMP I saw, an admittedly awkwardlooking cut suggested that Kink kept his trousers on all night, no doubt defensively. This certainly looks like the first cautious dawn of a new intimacy.
But the fullest expression of physical contact occurs as father and son, both in their underwear, share a bed. The father, rolling over in his sleep, captures all the blankets; the boy mutters irascibly, then rolls around to dovetail himself into his father’s form, from shoulder to ankle; then he pats his shoulder with a slight physical awkwardness that redoubles the effect of emphatic fraternity. It’s simple, it’s everyday, and it’s full of decisions and surprises, including the conscious acceptance of another’s egoism—which once more makes the child Dink the parent. (The scene is doubly moving for rejecting that developing taboo on nonsexual physical contact.)
Conversely, after the champ’s horse falls, he reassures the boy that the horse is all right, long before either he or we can possibly be certain of it. This mixture of lies (peace at any price) and protectiveness is also quite beautiful. All these contacts and distance-keepings build towards the boy’s final collapse in the dressing room, where one observes the terrible ambivalence of truth. For the champ’s moral triumph—as much for the boy’s sake as for his own—and his death reduce Dink to his mother’s boy at last.
Against its nostalgia for naughty-bawdy-sporty Tijuana, and overriding any qualms we may have about military discipline, is the film’s moral, which is broadly progressive and reformist. It involves several specific references to controversies, about the effects of environment on character, which were raging at the time. Wellman’s PUBLIC ENEMY also makes this clear: Tom Powers (Cagney) has a virtuous brother, a plot device suggesting that general social environment is only a small part of the story, and that Tom is responsible for his own psychopathy. In much the same spirit, Dink and his pals have—so far, at least— survived an awful environment with their essential innocence untainted; but there’s nothing to stop spectators from seeing the theft of sweets as leading to delinquency and maybe Father Flanagan’s BOYS TOWN, or Dink’s disdain of the maternal principle leading him towards the territory inhabited by Lewt (Gregory Peck) in Vidor’s DUEL IN THE SUN. Certainly the champ’s death is felt as a traditional human tragedy, and THE CHAMP (like THE CROWD) is moving precisely because Vidor’s sense of the city carries a sense both of social pressure and of individual freedom. It’s a freedom in which moral success may be snatched from the jaws of defeat, and in which morality retains its almost pagan sense of self-control and the integrity of life force—which in the end goes ironically beyond the individual’s existence.
The images here recall the grubby realism of THE CROWD and STREET SCENE. And the space, although free enough to be appropriated at the characters’ own discretion, is also subject to quick, fluid camera movements of the sort one finds in contemporary films by Lewis Milestone and Jean Renoir (as improved sound equipment allowed the cinema to revel once more in an earlier fluidity). The result is a fascinating conjugation of smooth, sharp, no-nonsense tracks and pans, which evoke city busyness, and of the city’s subservience to the film’s characters when their will or feelings take command.
Dink’s clambering over balconies and signaling from rooftops at his mother’s California home is partly hooligan freedom, partly a drift away from his pursuing half-sister, and partly the appropriation of a home to whose spaciousness he is unaccustomed. He finally reaches an apex from which he can signal to his father, dozing at the wheel of their car. This exploration of rooftop freedom is as pointed as that of the rebels in ZERO DE CONDUITE, and it doubtless expresses the spirit in which Dink will greet his brave new world. Like THE BIG PARADE’s Apperson, Dink will retain a sympathetic detachment from any sort of academy. (Did a “bad” environment protect his basic freedom? Perhaps.) Confronting his mother in her drawing room, Dink appropriates ‘ ‘his” space defensively, by throwing his cowboy hat across to the sofa and then holding a cushion over his knees as if to keep her at bay; meanwhile, her body visibly craves to touch him (in a prefigurement of the undressing scene). And as Dink visits the champ in prison, with the father so ashamed that he doesn’t want to see his son, a close-up has the prison bars boxing the boy’s face in, as if he were in jail.
Only environmental sounds are used throughout the film, until the last, quick, convulsive swelling up of a snatch of There’s No Place Like Home.” As Dink lies in bed he hears mellow ragtime played on a saloon piano, and later he alludes to his pleasure in hearing the music as he drifts off to sleep (another of the natural beauties of an environment fuller in vitality than the pious can understand). During the pre-fight ceremonies, the only sound is the roar of the crowd. The context gives this noise an ambivalence characteristic of Vidor films, in which sympathy and indifference, good and evil, or their counterfeits, are so often inextricably mixed. The crowd likes the champ, and they want a ferocious fight— in which he’ll die.
Perhaps the antitheses of Dink’s Tiajuana bedtimes are provided by the champ’s dressing-room death and by the boy’s first visit to his mother’s house. The champ’s triumph-and-death form a pair so long expected that Vidor has prepared surprises to enliven them, quite as carefully as Hitchcock could have done. First, the champ’s horse has lost the race, so we’re not completely certain that the champ won’t lose this fight. Second, the champ’s physical vulnerability has been in our minds from the beginning of the film, and is clearly stated by an unconcerned doctor just before the fight. Throughout that fight, Vidor can play cat and mouse with us over the heart attack, delaying until the fight is well over and the dressing room almost reached. One might ask why Vidor doesn’t wait even longer. Perhaps so that the champ’s sudden fall in the corridor can occur starkly, unexpectedly, in contrast with a quick, natural movement. Indeed, a notable, sideways-on shot of his entourage shows them abruptly frozen in an ongoing posture, with one man almost in an on-yourmark position, horror on his face. The champ’s fall is a cheap, sleazy shock between two worlds, and it is climaxed by a quick, grubby “funeral procession” into his dressing room.
In Dink’s first visit to his mother’s house, Linda wooed the boy, her back almost quivering as if to spread and curve and enfold him like wings against her breast. Yet she keeps her hands behind her back, carefully restraining herself in respect for this young stranger’s manliness; she is an ideal Vidorian mother. Dink’s hands are in the same position. At last, in the dressing room, Linda’s long arm scoops across the space between them, pulling him into her side.
For luck, the boy spits on his father’s cash-in-hand, on his fists, and on his gloves. The gesture is laden with the characteristic ambiguities of a struggling class. Spitting, of course, expresses contempt; but to be spat upon by a loved one can express both preemptive expiation and an absorption of fraternal insolence, thus bringing into the fray one’s own goodness and the loved one’s strength. During the fight, Vidor spares us those typical, boring shots of the interested party rooting at ringside; here, Dink is made a “second,” and given things to do: yes, spitting on the champ’s glove, but also holding his rinsing bowl and (dangerously) nearly throwing in the towel for pity’s sake—all of which is as slick and quick and precariously balanced as anything Hitchcock ever contrived. But Vidor (or his writers, or his way with the writers’ master scenes, or all together) gives this succession of twists a sense of impulse, of ambivalence, and therefore of a resolution and discipline quite unlike Hitchcock’s colder calculation.
In the prison, the champ smashes the boy across the mouth in a gesture whose sudden, fierce, offhand diagonal curve across the screen is all but a converse to that of the mother’s embracing arm at film’s end. As the champ lies dead, and no one dares tell Dink, the boy screams with all the protest of his love against the truth, and beats his little body against the dressing room wall, just as the champ had smashed his own guilty hand against the prison cell’s stone wall. In his grief, the boy circles the dressing room, confronting one person after another and soothed by none—although he’s almost calmed, for a few seconds, by the Negro, who is dearest to his heart. And if that detail recalls HALLELUJAH!, the sequence of quick, violent, convulsive confrontations anticipates the choreography of Kirk Douglas’s saloon sequence in Vidor’s MAN WITHOUT A STAR.
The champ’s death and Linda’s gesture are keyed to the rhythm of the sequence, with a brusqueness more suggestive of strong, decisive feeling than of an unfeeling deadpan. Like Hawks, Vidor knows just how to cut short a moment the audience expects—to “bat it and go on.” But, because he is an infinitely greater artist than Hawks, Vidor inserts it in a context, not of mere deadpan restraint, but of intricately counterpointed experience. Dink’s body movements catch a rough convulsiveness, an impotent protest, an incredulous futility—all transmitted physically, yet related to a philosophical context, via his friends and parental feeling.
Paradoxically, THE CHAMP’s age shows mainly in its acting. Wallace Beery’s soft voice purveys feelings a little more broadly than we are used to. Jackie Cooper seems just a little too unsoiled and, as it were, presuburbanized. Sponge (Rosco Ates), with his stammer, smacks of Runyonesque kitsch. Of course, styles of physical behavior change as fast as anything else, and the critic should be wary about making definitive judgments, even if he suspects which way Hollywood stylization was likely to err. What do most of us know (except from films, and a few exceptional photographs) about the gestures and cadences characteristic of New York in this era, and about significant deviations from the norm? All the same, this critic was struck, equally, by certain modernities. In three-quarters profile, Beery looks oddly like Charlton Heston. At other moments, he recalls W.C. Fields, with that gruff repudiation of pretentiousness.5
Although Vidor’s autobiography is silent about THE CHAMP, the film’s emotional impact survives our relatively sophisticated awareness of the Hollywood formulae and trends which it accommodates. In 1973, a group of English art students, who share their generation’s suspicion and contempt of sentiment, found themselves gripped, disarmed, convinced by THE CHAMP. I certainly found it not at all unworthy of THE CROWD and STREET SCENE. Within its limits, it succeeds rather better than STREET SCENE. Indeed, THE CHAMP may well number among (or be ranked very close behind) the best citylife films of Hollywood’s still-underexplored populist cycle, and its foreign counterparts.
Barbara Pepper, Tom Keene, and Karen Morley in Our Daily Bread (1931)
Our Daily Bread (1934)
John (Tom Keene) and Mary (Karen Morley) are a young city couple brimful of high spirits and cheerful drive. Came the Depression. But at last they got that stroke of Napoleonic luck which apathetic or embittered souls would have let slip through their fingers. They inherit a small spot of land somewhere out in the Middle West and have the guts to go out there and somehow make it pay. On their way they pick up fellow drop-outs and fugitives of all kinds until the twosome has become a co-operative. John makes over the control of his land to the group; and, despite a politician’s advocacy of a majority vote system, the group acclaims the idea of a strong leader—John, who had contributed the vision, the initiative, the property, and the faith in others.
Rapidly the co-operative runs into difficulties, some internal, some external. A bully tries to corner some land, but is cowed by the tough escaped convict, who becomes the community’s unofficial “cop.” The banks are altogether unsympathetic, and the community has to struggle along with so little money that the convict offers to give himself up so as to get in a claim to the reward money. The community won’t hear of it, but he is betrayed by Sally, the attractive, perfidious city girl, who means to keep the reward for herself and for John, with whom she has fallen in love. As everyone’s spirits flag, John becomes infatuated with her, and even flees the co-op, utterly demoralized. But he returns after seeing a vision of the convict. And as the seemingly interminable drought dooms the crop, he initiates the digging of an irrigation canal from the nearby river during the forty-eight hours after which the corn must die.
This outline obviously bristles with implications which are not merely ideological but directly political. OUR DAILY BREAD was in fact widely criticized as left wing by the Hearst Press (ironically, after Vidor’s association with Marion Davies) and as right wing by elements on the left (the latter being less acrimonious—the film was too right wing to win the First prize at a Moscow Film Festival, but it was awarded the Second).
This ambiguity is a result of a careful technique, inherited by Hollywood from show business generally (and indeed from political rhetoric itself), of seeking out and dwelling on the factors common to as wide a range of beliefs as possible, and suppressing or skimming lightly over divisive or embarrassing aspects and options. But to leave matters thus would be to remain anodyne and boring. Vidor’s problem here was to select just such points, and treat them in just such a way, that an underlying ambiguity does not impair the excitements of conflict, shock, and challenge. Thus converse political attitudes may be combined in such a way as to cancel each other out ideologically while producing a double surprise dramatically. OUR DAILY BREAD offers some ingenious examples. (And, in describing them, I am using the terms “left” and “right” in the journalistic, but generally received, sense whereby the right emphasizes the individual’s property rights, and the left an egalitarian community spirit.)
John is ready to cede ownership of the land to the co-operative (a very left-wing gesture), which the co-operative feels it would be ungrateful to accept (a right-wing attitude). The reciprocal gesture creates an atmosphere of dynamic goodwill, and the dramatic surprises make the political ambiguity look like a series of political challenges.
John is ready to abide by a majority vote (a left-wing principle) but the co-operative demands a strong leader (a right-wing attitude, though one which the left is normally ready to cede in a crisis situation, which this may be felt to be).
The advocate of the democratic principle is a pompous, demagogic politician (democracy as demagoguery being a right-wing attitude), but the antidemocratic principle is democratically acclaimed (so democracy is not demagogic). The image of corrupt vote-catching politicians loomed large in Republican denunciations of both Democratic city machines like Tammany Hall and Southern Democratic corruption. There is also an implication that the American democratic system is corrupt, and should be left alone—which might seem an apolitical contention (idealism turned desperate!) or a special form of Republican “immobilism” as against Roosevelt’s New Deal (in which governmental intervention loomed controversially large). As in Capra’s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, private enterprise has both the means and will to pull itself up by its own bootstraps and put the poor back on their own two feet. In this there is nothing specifically anti-Democratic, since the New Deal program was thoroughly eclectic and pragmatic. But so long as a need for government or state intervention isn’t raised. it’s hard to see how a film can be said to support the New Deal against those aspects of it to which even its opponents didn’t really object.
The film may seem left wing insofar as the banks feature prominently as villains. And certainly this attack on big business was so controversial that all the big studios—fearful of the banks on which they depended for finance—refused to finance the film, forcing Vidor to find his own money. Criticism of big business is both a popular plank of the Democratic platform and normally associated with the Populist movement, which verged on Socialism and might indeed have taken it up if it hadn’t become incorporated into the Democratic party instead.
But our left-right, Republican-Democratic dichotomy breaks down insofar as, in America, a radical criticism of big business is a right-wing tradition too. And OUR DAILY BREAD asserts, not the need for some sort of “anti-trust” spirited control by the government over the banks, in the name of the people, but the poor man’s self-help—a voluntary, corporate, morally inspired form of rugged individualism. The film seems to me to align its city-versus-country dichotomy with a Populism (in the political sense) which asserts a “little man’s,” farmers’, and artisans’, individualism against the tentacles of banks and big business. It asserts an old, established, perhaps obsolescent grassroots conservatism against what Richard Hofstadter calls the “pseudo-conservatism” that preaches “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” The film is ambiguous as to whether the community represents some kind of dropping out of the big business—dominated system altogether, or whether it represents an internal counterweight within the system itself.
Vidor’s Populist streak interacts in complex ways with his mixture of Emersonian transcendentalism and rugged individualism. And there is a compatibility between Populism and a competitive ideology, despite the former’s insistence on “a fair chance” as against the hereditarian callousness of Social Darwinism. Indeed, the social forces making for the latter may explain why American Populism could never quite become Socialist or Fascist, as its European counterparts did—despite waverings in both directions. The coincidence of ownership and leadership in OUR DAILY BREAD may be just a convenience for the purposes of political ambiguity; or it may express aspects of Jeffersonian democracy, which emphasized the yeoman farmer as the backbone of democracy, distrusted Eastern mercantilism and anticipated later reactions against big business and demagoguery.
The co-operative differs from a limited company only insofar as its shareholders put their work where their money is (or instead of money). In this sense it represents a kind of primitive capitalism, involving, to borrow Donald Macrae’s phrase, “the full man” (although this has the Puritanical overtones of a full moral commitment rather than academic-humanist ones). Populism’s absence of emphasis on large-scale planning appears also in the fact that, as a French interviewer observed, OUR DAILY BREAD’S dramatic structure hinges on the co-operative producing an abundant corn crop during the Depression, a period of catastrophic under-demand during which farmers were notoriously burning the very crop which Vidor’s co-operative was laboring so heriocally to produce.
Had the film centered on a more self-supporting community, it might have been economically more realistic. But it would presumably have offered less scope for that love of expansion—that act of faith in, if not the big business system, at least the American system. And it would have registered as a negative withdrawal rather than an exhilarating expansion. In fact, attempts at producers’ cooperatives had been a feature of American history, but (as in England) had mostly floundered, since independence from economic systems isn’t easily attained. Nonetheless, the film’s hope in something unconventional and non-individualistic could seem New Deal-like in spirit. But its combination of extreme vagueness about market forces and extreme precision about property rights suggests a right-wing basis to Vidor’s (and perhaps his audience’s) thought.
The co-operative is morally redemptive, as the criminal’s self-sacrifice suggests. And clearly Vidor is evoking that American tradition whereby life in the West offers a fresh start to any man whose force has been frustrated, debased, or perverted by the city jungle. But the film’s hard case is slinky young Sally, playing city music (jazz) on her phonograph a few hours after her old man’s death. She proves incorrigible, and quits.
Here Vidor asserts his usual resistance to scapegoat solutions. She isn’t the one rotten apple that rots the whole barrel. John is attracted to her insofar as his own resolution is weakening—as the community’s sudden enlargement threatens to diffuse its cohesion, and as difficulties amass. The John-Sally relationship parallels that of Zeke and Chick—a byproduct of “bad faith,” eventually purified, with the community’s internal difficulties resolved, not simply by success in the vulgar sense, but by a hard-earned moral success. This may explain why the brief, final image of rustic joviality seems so overheated. By trying to transform a Saturday Evening Post success-image into an expression of spiritual vitality, while also capping the preceding climax, Vidor inadvertently produces an incongruous blend of Mid-western prosperity and Negro gospel fervor. The film could have afforded a gently anticlimactic note, stressing contentment and viability rather than a kind of uproarious success, which was already sufficiently established in the extremely beautiful images of rejoicing as the parched crop is refreshed by the river water.
Similarly, the good girl—vamp dichotomy now seems somewhat out-of-key, and conventional in the worst Hollywood sense. The good gingham girl-next-door is quite as attractive and glamourized as the vamp, who’s merely slinkier, more provocative, more experienced. So when the hero makes the right decision he’s able to renounce his cheesecake and have it too. Despite the very real spiritual difference between the two women, the hypocrisy is obvious. But if Vidor allows his country girl a too-Hollywood face, he nonetheless allows more than just a hint to the effect that it is for the community, rather than for Mary alone, that John renounces Sally’s attractions, and returns. Although, in the final shot, the couple’s bliss seems unalloyed, it remains a focal point of the communal loyalty, rather than a root of it. The community—as well as, or rather than, the individual couple—seems a principal generator of happiness. In this respect the film keeps its discreet but welcome distance from the suburban ideal, whereby a community is built out of atomic couples.
Any contemporary intellectual audience can be guaranteed to laugh, Freudian-wise, as John and Mary watch their first little shoot sprouting. But the scene is of fertility in the truer sense, whereby, if the shoot is a phallic symbol, the phallus is also a vegetation symbol. The green fire that through the flesh-fuse drives the juice In a brief pause during the race to irrigate the crop, Mary hands John a mug of coffee; and, as he gazes gratefully at her, the steam from the coffee, mingling with his breath in the cold night air, is like the steam rising from the nostrils of a bull. It’s more than a simple celebration of virility—work, love, lust, with woman in a subservient role. It’s as if his work had imbued him with a new appreciation and a new maleness, the two going together, for now his passion has no need of the vamp, but grows from its own roots, in his body, towards his woman. And woman is by no means restricted to a passive feminine role; for her sisters, like the pioneer matriarchs of old, hold their torches high for their menfolk to work through the night, and wield shovel and pick axe by their side. In a curious converse of the romanticism of lust (which, certainly, is not absent from Vidor’s work), the detail implies that true maleness is the basis of family stability, for it responds to any woman, not impersonally, but as herself, and has no need for extravagant provocation and promiscuity. The image of John as ‘stud’ stallion carries the opposite sense from that which “fun morality,” turned competitive or permissive, may be too quick to read into it.
“l believe that the climax of OUR DAILY BREAD. is an example of film sense in its most comprehensive form,” writes Vidor. “Digging a long ditch in straight, pictorial action” is the problem with which his climax is faced. And it is virtually impossible to do justice to the inventiveness and variety of his mise-en-scéne without at least one frame-still or sketch of every set-up. Vidor, going far beyond Hollywood’s professional rules of thumb, reveals himself here as a director in the class of Eisenstein or Pabst. In strictly realistic terms, the action has its real or apparent implausibilities; e.g. the route is still being surveyed after digging has begun. But the movement is as strictly rhythmed (with a metronome and a drum) as any of Busby Berkeley’s production numbers; the lines of sweating men correspond to les girls—or to the forgotten men. Berkeley’s visual ideas find their counterpart in the astonishingly varied succession of topography, activities, postures, and movements which Vidor invents and choreographs. The crocodile of bending and straightening men advances as steadily as a Roman phalanx. The surveyors assert spaced, stiff, immobile verticals. The “laborioso” of the digging is suddenly counterpointed by the ‘allegretto” of the women rushing with flickering torches. One man faints in a dust cloud; a leak in a ramshackle aqueduct pours water over a man’s bare chest. The felling of a tree involves two-handled saws (a criss-cross of horizontal movement and an immobile vertical). The two struggling men are suddenly reinforced by the arrival of an automobile, slewing neatly in an implied curve along the horizontal.
The co-op’s triumph is celebrated by men somersaulting in the irrigated soil, or lurching motorbikes through it, as if copulating with the fertile mud. This is almost an inversion of the images of the copulating couple in L’AGE D’OR, and certainly a spiritual antithesis of other Vidor swamp images (Hot Shot’s death in the forest in HALLELUJAH!, the swamp deaths in RUBY GENTRY). But if man may here abandon himself, childishly, a little crazily, to the embrace of Mother Earth, it is by way of recompense for his effort of will against the desert. Charles Barr observes that earlier, John and Mary settle down to sleep, but cannot do so until their bodies are touching; and the image is immediately followed by John’s spade digging the earth. Not so much a Freudian symbol as suggesting the systole and diastole of self-abandonment and self-assertion, of emotion and will, of the Dionysian and the Apollonic, of the communal and the diverse.
It’s easy to be cynical and to complete both the film’s title and its climax with a much later film about New York life: Edward Dmytryk’s GIVE US THIS DAY, whose hero dies in the wet cement pouring on him in a building accident. But Vidor’s film goes beyond any specific political, economic, or social position to celebrate (1) man’s relationship with his Mother Earth, (2) an honest assertion of honest capitalism, and (3) a classic of the Russian silent cinema. For despite the accents and the rhythm (which is not at all a peasant rhythm), its parallels to a collective farm story are evident enough.
The disparity of rhythms between OUR DAILY BREAD and THE GENERAL LINE is as crucial as the contrasts, within Eisenstein’s film, between the Cubo-Futurist elements (the cream separator, the dynamicized numbers) and those glum, suspicious, peasant faces, lit like Rembrandts and verging on Breughelesque caricature. Populism’s attempt to perpetuate past virtues in the present also involved a search for new forms of assertion; and OUR DAILY BREAD is also about mechanization. The “caterpillar tracks” of men with picks and shovels, moving across the countryside at their implacable speed, are not just a gang but a visually reminiscent converse of a factory conveyor belt, a mass production line. They are so many John Henrys calling on Taylorism to match the steam drill’s speed. They come over the brow of a hill almost as strangely as the tank in Pabst’s WESTFRONT 1918. The simultaneity of surveying and digging is inspired by the same appeal to industrial speed, from which rustic America learns a trick or two, but without selling its soul. In this respect, OUR DAILY BREAD evokes both Disney’s insistence on the jollity of modern methods when properly domesticated by Mickey Mouse and his friends and the feeding machine of MODERN TIMES.
It’s obvious that all three filmmakers are working from different viewpoints: Vidor from an authentic Populism, Disney from a more sentimentalized position, and Chaplin from a left-anarcholiberalism. Bizarre as the range of films may seem, it is natural enough that methods which transform societies should recur as seen from innumerable perspectives and throughout a variety of genres. One would have to add, after all, the Eisenstein film, Clair’s A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ, Lang’s METROPOLIS, and (as I tried to suggest in my book The Crazy Mirror), the high-speed slapstick of Mack Sennett. When mechanization took command, it galvanized the popular imagination, not merely as a theme in itself, but also as an element determining its vision of other themes. Eventually, Cyd Charisse’s ironical remark in IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER—”Yes, of course, I’m a machine”—points to Andy Warhol’s “I wish I was a machine.’
Ironically enough, in the two most dynamic nations, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., anything like a realistic picture of labor virtually disappears from the screen in the early Thirties. Truck drivers and steelmen take pride of place in a few films between 1935 and 1945 like THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, MANPOWER, and PITTSBURGH; but the setting is usually a pretext for melodrama, or for war-effort pieties, and any interest in the experience of manual labor is conspicuous by its absence. Tay Garnett’s knockabout melodrama WILD HARVEST (1947), with its battles between rival teams of mechanized harvest workers, qualifies, enjoyably enough, as a bizarre perversion of Vidor’s long-cherished project, an epic of wheat. The only tools to interest postwar Hollywood are small arms (WINCHESTER ’73, COLT .45, the Bowie Knife). The last Hollywood incarnation of American proletarian tensions is the boxer (THE SET-UP, THE CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL), until Kazan presents the ex-boxer turned-docker of ON THE WATERFRONT. The small cycle of films it sparked off were really about labor racketeering, not labor. Hollywood depicts America as a society of consumers and gangsters, in which virtually all productive work happens at desk-set level. For any real sense of anything else, one has to turn to renegade productions like Vidor’s film, Dmytryk’s GIVE US THIS DAY, Biberman’s SALT OF THE EARTH, and maybe even Cy Endfield’s HELL DRIVERS and SEA FURY which, despite their ostensibly English settings, do paraphrase the rage, pain, and cynicism of proletarian life as described by writers like Mailer and Bukowski, and which blast forth from the shotgun-carrying truck drivers of EASY RIDER. Not that Hollywood’s labor musical, THE PAJAMA GAME, hasn’t its charms. But even a semi- or post-Hollywood American cinema continues to be rather tricksy about labor, with such films as NOTHING BUT A MAN resuming the subordination of a laboring life to issues of race and violence, and the super-tough hardhat of FIVE EASY PIECES rapidly quitting his oil field to return to the idle rich whence he came. Yet what a subject, for Vidor or anyone else, exists in Edmund Wilson’s account of the Iroquois who became construction workers!
Of the Thirties films I know, the nearest in spirit to Vidor’s is Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH (which was also made despite the banks). It emphasizes the dignity of the manual worker, and even in his expropriation from the land and his reduction to the servility of working for others. And this trio of Populist films is completed by Renoir’s THE SOUTHERNER, which, least lyrical of the three, compensates with its dourly realistic social and dramatic process: the gradual, tentative growth of a guarded, cynical neighborliness and a consumers’ co-operative (which succeeded as regularly as the producers’ co-operatives failed).
Vidor’s co-operative is “religious” insofar as it’s an association of people who have freed themselves from their past. This is only one aspect of Vidor’s reiterated belief that the past is something the healthy and great-souled can always reject. Its formulation in terms of a regenerative community renders it a fascinating converse to THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, Ford’s own favorite among his films, and as personal to him as OUR DAILY BREAD is to Vidor. With these two films, one can trace an almost embarrassingly complex and complete comparison between opposite points of view—or reverse angles— across a common territory.
Ford emphasizes tradition rather than dynamism, relaxation (even drunken fecklessness) rather than the Puritan ethic, mutual acceptance and courageous tolerance rather than strenuous self- and group-help, the nobility of economic failure, and the respectful ritual of funerals. He deploys all the paraphernalia of rural Americanism: the flag, parlor hymns, the myth of the West, sexual chivalry, the Puritan gravitas of Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. Yet he divests them of their Americanist prejudices to achieve something rather different. The Mountain Men in THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT stand in for any group of no-good scruffies—i.e., ultra-WASPs for immigrants. Judge Priest insists on the human dignity of moral failures when he follows the prostitute’s hearse. (Ford takes the same attitude towards the unemployed of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, who inherit no land from their parents but lose it to the bank, and the ‘ ‘white trash” of TOBACCO ROAD.) Judge Priest achieves a fascinating balance between the Abraham Lincoln image and the Tammany Hall-type demagoguery of THE LAST HURRAH, and this, I think, may be why this is Ford’s favorite film. And although critics were charmed out of their wits by Ford’s Westerns and the military nostalgias of the Seventh Cavalry (which Ford, along with Hollywood generally, accepted as an ersatz for a community spirit whose contemporary civilian forms seem to have been curiously difficult to celebrate), the Civil War veterans’ organizations which loom large in the social structure of Judge Priest’s old Kentucky Home are carefully ‘demilitarized” by switch-overs of fraternity between now-reconciled veterans.
Both OUR DAILY BREAD and THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT concern themselves with problems of moral leadership and mobocracy. Ford’s answer isn’t, in broad outline, very different from Vidor’s. Judge Priest ruins his chances of re-election by alienating every group in turn; he stops the Tornado boys from lynching a Negro, and he alienates the righteous by giving a prostitute a decent burial. The dead girl turns out to come from a respectable family, and the Tornado mob support Judge Priest because “He saved us from ourselves.” Yet there seems a difference of emphasis. Vidor asserts the quick, spontaneous rightness of the strong leader. Ford’s leaders are more concerned with reconciliation and equity; they are at once slower and more cynical; they accept, and all but relish, demagoguery as part of the political game.
Both directors are careful to gratify both the hero-principle of individualism and a belief in the responsible decency, at bedrock level, of the crowd. Where Vidor emphasizes superhuman efforts crowned with success, Judge Priest’s last line is “It’s time I took my medicine to start my old heart going again.” He walks slowly away from us through a recession of dark doorways, as the image both counterpoints the dialogue to assert staying alive as a lonely duty and recalls Young Mr. Lincoln’s acceptance of his personal loneliness and his political destiny. Earlier, Judge Priest threatens to do what the law forbids a judge to do by swearing himself in as a deputy and carrying out a citizen’s arrest, a line whose hilarious ingenuity moves me aesthetically, intellectually, and morally—partly for outrageously exploiting the letter of the law, lynch-mob style, and partly for profoundly respecting the spirit of the law. The prevailing implication seems to me to be (if I’m not reading my own political partialities into it) that the law as it stands is perfectly adequate for all decent purposes, and that more sweeping powers would betray America’s traditional liberties.
In other words, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is a defense of the Constitution against the revisions and the negligence promulgated by the McCarthy spirit, which was still riding high when Ford made this (veiled) protest against it, in the very terms most likely to move McCarthy’s supporters. In political terms, Judge Priest’s “other” face is doubtless that of Charles Laughton in ADVICE AND CONSENT. But Ford’s film, like his sense of the past, is as much a moral example as it is mere nostalgia; his general position would seem to be a Democratic conservatism.
Ford’s nostalgia is more topical than it seems, being a continuing restatement of the liberal-democratic roots of American tradition. Vidor’s topicality is more traditional, or archaic, than it seems, depending as it does on the assumption that America retains a primitive, “pre-Constitutional” vigor, spontaneously continuing and creating its own forms in response to circumstance. This comparison relates to only one aspect of artistic caliber. In any case, Ford’s film is twenty years younger (that is, older) than Vidor’s. In 1934, Ford was very far removed from his later, more profound, more oblique, and very cautious overtones. His later preoccupations may be seen as a restatement of original American ideals against both the cynicism of the film noir and the pseudo-conservative backlash—a Fordian affirmation no less poignant for the unimpeachable Americanism of its terms. Film noir wrenches Vidor out of his Thirties affirmations into a much more exacerbated mood. Oblique as it is, our comparison of OUR DAILY BREAD and THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT does seem to separate two contrasted, continuing streaks in American conservatism.
Both men have their generation’s respect for women, although Ford’s gallantry differs from Vidor’s awareness of their magic force. Ford’s heroes are often either solitary and celibate, or soft-hearted men’s-men, or moral steel like Lincoln and Priest—almost Calvinistic “monks in the world”—although Ford’s concealed, personal model may be priestly celibacy transposed into a WASP key. The whore is a lady at heart, or is at least to be treated with that courtesy; and the woman-taming antics of THE QUIET MAN seem rather vapid compared with the more volatile ambivalence of Vidor’s heroes towards their women, whether as inspiration, temptation, or Amazonian challenge.
Vidor’s responsiveness to female sexuality goes with a sense of an identical life force coursing through both sexes. And it wouldn’t require a great leap of the imagination to hypothesize (although for speculative interest rather than from conviction) the influence of Irish celibacy on Ford’s work; and, in Vidor’s, the loving ambivalence of an honest dynamism recognizing that only through challenge and temptation can a spirit grow—and that fear and rancor are as pointless as remorse.
Ralph Bellamy, Anna Sten, and Gary Cooper in The Wedding Night (1934)
The Wedding Night (1934)
Author Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper) retires to a country cabin, largely to salve an ego mortified by the critical drubbing accorded his latest book. He is attracted by Manya (Anna Sten), and by the community of Polish immigrants living nearby. At first, she, and the simple life of her hospitable family, seem an idyllic alternative to the city smart-set and intelligentsia. Mollycoddled by city sophistication as he might have become, he is nonetheless able to build a wood fire in the cabin hearth to warm his beautiful visitor—an act which is almost sacramental in its acceptance of traditional American domesticity and practicality. His new-found humility helps him to stop resenting criticism and instead to learn from the truth in it. Although he is attracted to the idea of a country life, free from city vanities, to renew his inspiration, an ominous note is introduced by an immigrants’ meal, at which the children sit hungrily watching until, their elders having finished, they are allowed to rush to the table. The tips of the horns of Old World authoritarianism are rapidly followed by the remainder of the beast. Compared with the WASP who might steal their village beauty, her Polish lover is paranoid, jealous, and drunken, and, on their wedding night, her groom is bestial to the point of rape. Meanwhile the writer’s city girl comes after him, revealing the honesty underlying a sophistication which is merely skin deep. Barrett realizes that his Arcadian dream has done its work. Manya dies in a tragic accident, still in love with him. And perhaps Tony must have it on his conscience that, though she helped him to find himself, he abandoned her to a life which her glimpse of American liberty, through him, rendered unbearable to her. But life, and art, go on . . .
The New World—Old World relationship is in antithesis to that of THE BIG PARADE. There, love crosses all boundaries; here, it is frustrated by them. Where OUR DAILY BREAD asserts an escape into rustic community, THE WEDDING NIGHT asserts a tragic failure to escape from it. The various positions aren’t inconsistent, given the differing nature of the communities, usefully indicated by a quotation from Henri Arvon’s discussion, in his little book on L’Anarchisme, of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own:
“That life in society is our natural state, Stirner concedes. One need only look at the child’s dependence on its parents… But Society…is but a social life which is petrified, immobilized, hypostatized, which subjugates the Ego instead of serving it. It is not up to Society to impose social duties on us, it is up to us to demand from Society the satisfaction of our needs. Let us therefore transform ‘Society’ into ‘Association.’ In Association, asserts Stirner, you affirm your will, your capacities, and your Self, whereas in Society your capacities for work are exploited. In the former, you fulfill yourself, in the latter, you live like a man, that is, religiously. Association exists for you and through you, whereas Society claims you as its chattel and even exists without you. In brief, Society is sacred, and Association is your well-being. Society consumes you, whereas you profit from Association.”
The Polish community of THE WEDDING NIGHT is Society, easily criticizable with its feudal, peasant remnants. The property-respecting co-operators of OUR DAILY BREAD are an Association of reciprocating and generous Egoists. Tony Barrett’s New York coterie may abound in anomic egoists (egoists in the usual, petty sense, quite different from Stirner’s!), and constitutes a far from perfect society. But at least one can escape from it, and return to roots in which one is not imprisoned.
Vidor’s autobiography expounds some of his problems with the different acting styles of Gary Cooper and Anna Sten, and the result is a conventional passion which we take on trust as much as we feel. Having elsewhere emphasized the role of physical plasticity in film acting (quite apart from obvious cases like Chaplin and Keaton), I was pleased to see Vidor making, as a matter of course, a distinction between an actor’s dialogue and his “pantomime.” If this remains a minor film in the Vidor canon, it’s still of particular interest given the shadows into which Hollywood’s bright lights plunged an important aspect of America’s evolution.
On the one hand, city individualism encourages a petty egoism in the writer. On the other hand, the Polish community proves savagely restrictive. The golden mean between the two is a certain mixture of mobility and rootedness: the writer can move between city sophistication and country simplicity in a way which, given less moral seriousness on his part, could be evasive and foster self-delusion, but which he is honest enough to turn to full moral purpose. In a sense, Manya becomes the substitute victim of this mobility. Certainly the film emphasizes another cause of her tragedy: a bestiality that could be taken as the logical conclusion of the immigrant group’s cohesiveness, as its essence, as its Old World decadence unveiled. The spectator may of course prefer an alternative reading: that Manya’s fate is a tragic anomaly, which no more reflects on its community’s real spirit than Rod Steiger’s nastiness reflects the real spirit of OKLAHOMA!’ It’s not evident to me which response,
or which particular degree of predominance between both responses, should be taken as the “real” one. My own suspicion is that, while spectators whose immigrant family experience is fresh in their memory will be keenly aware of Manya’s fate as a tragic anomaly, others (and these will be the majority) would have veered rather nearer the anti-Polish response. To wit: “While Polish immigrants may eventually be capable of aspiring to Americanism (as young Manya does), old Polish ways are not merely different, they are bad. If Manya is a tragic figure, and not a vamp, as a coarser film might have made her, it is because her natural goodness has already responded to the possibilities of America. If she isn’t exactly a ‘good Injun,’ her plight is entirely her community’s fault, for its maintenance of European decadence and tyranny.”
In the context of a general revival of interest in racial and ethnic issues, one is likely to wish for a more complex moral movement, whereby, however alien and harsh the old Polish culture may initially seem, Barrett comes to recognize and respect its raison-d’étre. And his feelings for Manya would be a response, not, as here, to the American-style glamour which sets her so far apart from her fellow-Poles, but for those qualities of hers which could only grow in their culture—and to which Barrett, being what he is, can come no closer than a nostalgia which is pain and which liberates or exiles him forever from New York or anywhere else, so that he is at home nowhere, and everywhere.
Maybe it is unfair to expect some such sophistication from the film, given its time so soon after rural America, with its widespread and endemic Depression, had reacted to the New Immigration with such alarm that the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act virtually stopped any further immigration. THE WEDDING NIGHT doesn’t quite call into question the optimistic “melting pot” theories—whereby the diversity of immigrant talents would contribute to a uniquely American richness—but it certainly (and quite correctly) asserts that the process of fusion will be longer and more difficult than melting-pot theory had supposed, and that it will involve a cultural shock which is regularly harsh and painful for all concerned. It’s also worth remembering that many immigrant commurtities brought with them reactionary and illiberal attitudes, which gave their young people an extremely difficult time.
One respects THE WEDDING NIGHT for raising the issue of new immigrant cultures at all, and it is one of those unjust ironies of critical response that the film’s near uniqueness (so far as I know) makes me steadily more irritated as the minority culture is steadily blackened in order to conform to easy spectator prejudice.
Nonetheless, to have raised the issue so clearly makes the film very much more profound than the love story as which it is usually discussed or dismissed in the critical histories. The film is certainly of its time, for foreign-sounding names like Novarro and Valentino were all but disappearing from film-star credits, and would not reappear until Brando and Novak fell into synch with the internal questionings of WASP culture symptomized by REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in the mid-Fifties.
It is precisely because of the enormous disparity between the immigrant experience in America and its rare appearance on Hollywood screens that any proper study of reality vs screen echoes would require a book. Still, a few pointers might help put THE WEDDING NIGHT in its place, and add “theme theory” to auteur, genre, and cycle theories. Theme criticism clearly belongs here, since the other theories depend partly on spotting certain combinations of themes, often at the expense of the originalities and nuances with which many of the more enterprisingly human films explore new combinations and contradictions between genres. I would also suggest that divisions that define genres arose not only to establish valid conventions but also to avoid uncomfortable connections. (For example, the gangster film offers a safely narrow form of social criticism.) The most honest and insightful films may be those which refuse genre conventions altogether, or at least distort them in a way that either deprives them of box-office success or attains a success too precarious to inspire imitations, derivations, and variations.
Sons of the Pioneers?—Immigrant themes seem to fall into three main periods. During the silent era, melting-pot optimism prevails. A kind of innocent confidence wins out (just) in Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT. The Tramp is both Old Migration—English (because Chaplin was English) and New Migration—poor-Jewish (by appearance). He comes from everywhere and nowhere. He is the universal immigrant.
The tensions of immigration may be paraphrased by an exoticism which is facilitated by the prestige of literary romanticism. All those silent stars with foreign names (Theda Bara, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Nazimova, Valentino, Novarro, et al.) may have one meaning at one cultural level, another at another. Often snobbish, authoritarian, or rapacious, they might represent not merely a fascination with European decadence and a projection onto foreign cosmopolitanism of American city decadence and the dawning fun morality of “flaming youth,” but a transposition of immigrant problems into the characteristic entertainment and dream forms of wish fulfillment (the rich European aristocracy) and of reversal (whereby foreign decadence is reassuringly associated with the Twenties waning of the WASP Puritan ethic).
Melting-pot theories were optimistic about all the cultural possibilities: reciprocal adaptation, assimilation, and pluralism. But the metaphor inadvertently gives itself away. To be tossed into a melting pot wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience. In fact, THE MELTING POT wouldn’t be a bad title for THE CROWD, whose sense of anomie, failure, and pain typifies a cycle of films that might include Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS (with its very different treatment of a Chaplinesque scenario) and THE LAST COMMAND. The theme recurs in UNDERWORLD, where the gangster acts as spiritual champion of the demoralized; and the theme of foreignness is reiterated by the nickname “Rolls Royce” (an English product that was subsequently to do service as the villain’s car in Hollywood movies). In the intensely personal terms of the gangster genre, UNDERWORLD catches the process whereby several gangsters become the heroes of their own ethnic group.
Something of the flavor of this early melting-pot period lingers in Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS and BLONDE VENUS. The former, particularly, stresses Marlene less than one might expect, and in its broader theme the Shanghai Express itself functions as a melting pot, in that initially antipathetic or self-obsessed or self-enclosed individuals come to respect and help one another. (Try to imagine a similar variety of American and immigrant types meeting in a stagecoach, with Indians for Chinese.) Sternberg’s foreigners tend to be either high-prestige Old Migration ethnic groups (upper-class French, English, German) or low-status New Migration groups rendered exotic (Anna May Wong, who was for the Chinese what Pola Negri was for the Poles).
The Chinese girl typifies another recurring device. She is differentiated from the villainous patriots of her own class, and even kills one for the sake of her American friend—a switch-over that corresponds to Manya’s yearning for the American style in THE WEDDING NIGHT. In this connection, it’s interesting to suggest that Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS may be as much about ethnic issues as is THE BIRTH OF A NATION: the 1919 film is about the working-class Irish-types abusing the Puritan Anglo-Saxons even as they obliterate the Asiatics. One might also say that THE WEDDING NIGHT is an anti-LAST COMMAND. In Vidor’s film, the unadapted immigrant culture is primarily a villain and only secondarily a victim; and a premature Iron Curtain of ethnic anonymity or WASPishness begins to descend over everyone’s facial, vocal, and behavioral styles.
The gangster film indicates a counterpattern, and initiates Phase II of the immigrant theme in Hollywood. Swarthy exotics (Muni, Robinson) are foreground villains who contrast with law-abiding communities (the gangster’s mama). James Cagney is clearly an Irish gangster; but however heinous his crimes, or deranged his psychology, he contrives to be lovable enough to identify with. It’s interesting that the Irish represented a late wave of the Old Migration (in which they were very low-status), but had sufficiently established themselves to be “Americanized” in relation to the New Migration. Thus, Tammany Hall organized successive waves of immigrant votes. Or, in movie terms, Irish cops chase Italian gangsters (Thomas Jackson’s Lt. Tom Flaherty after Robinson’s Caesar Enrico Bandello).
George Bancroft represents the older, Irish-bruiser style in UNDERWORLD. And an ambivalent view of the Irish is perpetuated via lovable villains like Victor McLaglen and James Cagney. Where old-style Irish fighters like Bancroft and McLaglen loomed heavily over their victims, Cagney loomed under them. Half-gangster, halfleprechaun, the yin-yang of his cheek and his crime generates a powerful “alternating current” in one movie after another. The suburbanization of the Irish is exemplified by Louis B. Mayer’s Mickey Rooney, and the Bancroft-Cagney-Rooney progression arouses a suspicion that the Thirties cycle of films about happily cozy Victorian families represents an escape not only from Depression insecurities but also from the vexation of heroes’ having a New Migration family background. Generally in early-Thirties movies there seem to be more foreign-accented or foreign-typed character roles (usually elderly) than in Forties or Fifties movies.
Given America’s isolationist and un-European policies between the wars, it’s difficult to see why audiences should have been so interested in “foreign” themes except as melodramatic, sentimental, or exotic versions of internal social processes. Geoffrey Gorer theorizes that the American-born immigrants’ sons rejected the alien, old-fashioned ways of the foreign community. This would correspond to Hollywood’s ambivalence about such European father-figures as Dr. Ehrlich and Louis Pasteur on the one hand and, on the other, figures like Edward G. Robinson (Ehrlich) and Paul Muni (Pasteur); their dark, complicated faces and psychologies are virtual identikits of the non-WASP who, although he has become partly assimilated, remains “different” in one way or another. For reasons indicated in our remarks on THE CROWD, the non-WASP father is regularly inverted into the ultra-WASP father: snobbery being one-way, the non-WASP is readier to identify with higher-status groups than the WASP is with lower-status groups. (Hence Clifton Webb and Vincent Price as celebrated snooties of the Forties. Between the two types Charles Laughton represents a kind of “rogue-WASP” father-figure, while S. Z. Sakall incarnates the Central European “granpappy.”)
If we leave aside the themes of color prejudice and anti-Semitism, one of the few films to face the issues of white immigrant groups in a quite straightforward way is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949). A variation on the King Lear theme, it looks with some compassion on the founder of an Italian bank (Edward G. Robinson) who can’t adapt to American legalism, and sees the kindest of his sons marry a non-Italian society girl (Susan Hayward). The film begins with the brother (Richard Conte) returning from prison to claim his share of the family wealth, and it deliberately creates expectations of becoming a Mafia story before quietly dropping its gangster theme. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947, filmed 1948) looks more sternly on the manufacturer (Edward G. Robinson!) who has assimilated only the least scrupulous American ways, and can’t understand the indignation of his son (Burt Lancaster) over the shoddy workmanship which has enriched the family at the expense of the lives of American air crews. With Death of a Salesman (1949, filmed 1951) Arthur Miller turns his moral guns through 180 degrees to bombard the reigning WASP ethos of transcendental dynamism and fun morality.
At about the same time, Joseph Losey’s THE BIG NIGHT makes a specific reference to its hero’s Polish-American background; nor does Losey’s THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR concern merely the color problem. A sentimentally liberal but likable acceptance of ethno-cultural plurality informs several of Dore Schary’s B-productions at MGM (GLORY ALLEY, MY MAN AND l, LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT).
But such films are in a minority. And the tough, tight-lipped heroes rule the Forties roost—nomadic monads, enigmatic and reluctant to reveal their emotions or weaknesses or roots. Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan are among the most interesting non-WASPS. Humphrey Bogart is a fascinating “identikit” non-WASP, with a young man’s force and the emotional versatility and vulnerability of Edward G. Robinson. To the late and unlamented left-wing cult of John Wayne’s manly walk, I would oppose the awkward and therefore sensitive para-hardhat shamble of Burt Lancaster.
Once a common style which is neither WASP nor anti-WASP had been achieved, in parallel with the obvious WASPery of most suburban settings, the psychological strains begin to break through, although they were considered as individual problems only, without much reference to ethnic subcultures. The third Hollywood period begins as a psychological era, of introspection and hysteria (The Method, Jerry Lewis), and broadens as initially personal and familial tensions mingle with increasingly insistent social tensions (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE). Ray’s film’s evocation of three parallel problems with father-figures (Dean’s is too weak, Wood’s is too stern, Mineo’s is absent) involves an ethnically anonymous family (Dean’s), a WASP-Puritan style (Wood’s), and a non-WASP style (via Sal Mineo’s looks and name; Mineo also has a colored mother-figure).
In an interesting reversal of nostalgias, the conspicuously non-WASP male takes on a positive father-role—in ZORBA THE GREEK. The mantles of Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson are resumed by Rod Steiger and Anthony Quinn, and a conspicuously non-WASP white like Elvis Presley (Italian? Spanish? Mexican? Creole?) effortlessly succeeds all Hollywood’s counter-concoctions in the blond, well-scrubbed key. In the early Thirties, Cary Grant contrasted with most of Hollywood’s Englishmen (Clive Brook, Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall) in that his slick, clipped, quick style seemed well adapted to the sub-WASP world. He was a transition figure, just as James Cagney combined the audacity of the Irish gangster with the sneakiness of the Wop one. When Tony Curtis parodies Cary Grant’s accent in SOME LIKE IT HOT, it’s partly the parody by an “Italian” (Jewish) New York type, of an older, still faintly snobbish style. But ethnic tensions are yielding to status tensions—which may be one reason why the ethnic tensions are allowed to reappear at this period: they’re no longer so laden with cultural controversy and painful emotion.
THE YOUNG SAVAGES makes some sort of sense of the nonsense of WEST SIDE STORY. Capra’s A HOLE IN THE HEAD still seems relevant enough, with the assimilated, ambitious son (Frank Sinatra) having to escape from the visibly very Italian style and ideas of his elder brother (Edward G. Robinson!). Elia Kazan has been particularly conscious of immigrant subcultures, from PANIC IN THE STREETS, through the Eli Wallach—KarI Malden confrontation in BABY DOLL, to AMERICA AMERICA. By 1965 it begins to look as if a New York Jewish nerviness has been unself-consciously accepted as a sort of portmanteau non-WASP style (much as the New York Irish style had been so accepted twenty years earlier)—vide Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers—possibly for good reasons (the Jewish as a well-adapted urban style) as well as for an ultra-cautious one (“Some of the smartest people “). Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER is a much stronger story if one forgets the concentration-camp “explanations” and makes him just an old-fashioned New York Jewish meanie—son of the owner of THE PAWNSHOP in which Chaplin smashed a famished customer’s clock. Lumet’s film certainly touches on Negro-Jewish tensions early in the day.
In the April 1961 Films and Filming, George Seaton discussed the problem of essaying an immigrant theme a little too early and a little too clearly:
“Do you remember a film called ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN? It was about George Papashivily, a Georgian, a little man (played brilliantly, I thought, by Jose Ferrer) who didn’t belong in his own country but so desperately wanted to belong somewhere. It won a United Nations Organisation award; the corps of Foreign Correspondents in the United States loved it; and on the whole it got good critical notices. But it was a colossal commercial failure. People actually came out of their homes and went down to the local theatres where it was playing just to stand outside and say, ‘Let’s not go in.’ I should know, because I made it.
And having made it, and having seen how I completely failed to communicate with a mass audience, I quit film-making for a while to try to find the reason why. I worked for the International Refugee Organisation of the U.N., and one of the refugees it was my duty to receive was an old man from Poland, whose sister had been living in the States for several years.
Everything, I thought, would be easy. There would be a happy family reunion. The old man would be welcomed into his sister’s household; and I would do a quick dissolve into the background. How wrong I was! The facts were that the sister didn’t want him. She had actually sent him a letter saying, ‘We Americans don’t want any more foreigners, so go back where you come from.’
l learnt the sad lesson that no one is more anti-foreigner than those who until recently were ‘foreign’ themselves. My film had come too near to reality. I had identified too closely. Too many Americans saw themselves and their immediate family on the screen; and instead of feeling pity, they felt animosity.”
The Polish connection returns us to THE WEDDING NIGHT. And that film’s pessimism about assimilation is retained, over a quarter of a century later, in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN, with its Polish baroness whom the tyrannical Communists would allow to leave but who can’t find the sponsor required by the land of the free. Pitiable as she is, Hitchcock makes her a spiteful grotesque, too. Losey’s concern for his Polish-American hero in THE BIG NIGHT becomes more meaningful when one relates it to the about-to-dawn era of ethnic-status sick jokes. ( “Why are there only two pallbearers at a Polish funeral?”—”Because a dustbin only has two handles.” ) Obnoxious as such cracks are, they may well indicate a mixture of awareness and frankness which signals a shift of attitude and a revision of ethnic-status prejudice, rather than their aggravation.
The last sentence of George Seaton’s statement chimes ironically with the fact that Samuel Goldwyn, the producer of THE WEDDING NIGHT, was himself a Polish immigrant. But though Vidor’s name is not unfamiliar to us under its Polish spelling of “Wajda,” any real connection is less direct, for Vidor is primarily a Magyar name. Despite the long-standing frictions between Poles and Hungarians in Europe, it would seem reasonable to assume that Vidor’s Americanism was independent of any inherited animosity; and there is no reason to assume that he had been involved in a Central European authoritarianism like that depicted in THE WEDDING NIGHT.
All the same, cultural tendencies often continue more deeply than their inheritors realize, and it’s perfectly possible that Vidor’s Texan expansionism isn’t without its family-transmitted, European-immigrant undercurrent. For in the Eastern European forests and plains, no natural boundaries protected ethno-cultural groups. They preserved their identity and their community through “cavalry” audacity or by communal will during those centuries of struggle or occupation. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that tradition (which entails a sense of the human will as at once natural, communal, and arbitrary) clearly reveals its reverse side: an expressionism of the absurd (from Kafka to Borowczyk). If the muscular and nervous tone of Vidor’s transcendentalism differs so profoundly from Emerson’s, it may well have a double rather than a single (Texan) source.
Vidor makes relatively little of the “fantasy of good will,” counting, rather, on a spontaneous, willful identity of individual and community interest. And this divergence from the usual emphases forced on American thought by the encounter of its individualist and Social Darwinist currents may owe something to that European sense of community cohesion. The communities of HALLELUJAH!, OUR DAILY BREAD, THE WEDDING NIGHT, and NORTHWEST PASSAGE are all communities of the spirit, of the will. Vidor is conscious of their economic infrastructure (which is why his films interest Marxists), but its importance is regularly presented as an expression of moral fiber (which defuses any economic materialism).
The hypothesis of a “hereditary” European influence on Vidor can be made only tentatively, with something of a feeling that ancestry may be so touchy a subject that it’s less likely to mislead anybody if wrong than to be dismissed too rapidly and resentfully if it’s right. But social anthropologists seem to have the feeling that older cultural patterns subsist under newer forms rather more persistently than had once been thought, or leave a kind of spiritual void if they don’t. And, as Arno Karlsen observes in his useful survey of sexual mores: “Our total inheritance is as much Celtic, Teutonic, Iberian and Slavic as it is Hebrew, Roman and Greek.’
Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell in The Citadel (1938)
The Citadel (1938)
A naïve idealism has inspired young Manson (Robert Donat) to his doctor’s vocation. His disillusionment begins with his discovery of the insanitary conditions tolerated by the obfuscating bureaucracy of a Welsh mining village. One evening he and a colleague, intoxicated and inspired, dynamite the village’s most virulent sewer. But when the miners themselves turn on him, fired by superstitious fear of his medical research, Manson moves to London where he attempts to set up a kind of doctors’ co-operative to benefit the London poor. Instead, he finds himself quietly, imperceptibly, seduced by an Establishmentarian Old-Boy Net, whose only concern is their fashionability among the rich. Eventually a drunken associate operates on Manson’s best friend and kills him. Sacrificing his career by denouncing his smartest colleagues, Manson returns to a mining village, to resume his research into silicosis, its causes and cure.
The film is something of a link between two genres, or rather cycles: Warners’ biographies about medical idealists (notably Doctors Pasteur, Ehrlich and, as film noir looms, Clitterhouse), and two other Welsh-mining films: Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and Carol Reed’s THE STARS LOOK DOWN, both of which it anticipates. While Ford tends to see his Welsh villagers as Irish-American pioneer folk, Vidor comes to think of them as hardcore Bible Belters; and while Reed’s film leans to the left, Vidor’s veers to the right. The principal obstacles to the miners’ health are bureaucracy and the miners as a superstitious mob, rather than the healthy capitalistic instincts of the mine-owners, which carry the weight of the blame in Reed’s film. The idea of a doctors’ co-operative as a solution to the problem of medicine for the poor isn’t simply a paraphrase of the idea of a National Health Service (introduced in Britain seven years later). It is primarily an alternative to it—a demonstration that Socialism would be unnecessary if only an “inspirationalist” change of heart were to be followed through by the medical profession itself.
The “English Medical Association” might seem to suggest the “British Medical Association,” and to that extent the film remains faithful to the book’s attack on the mercenary spirit of the medical profession. As often, what from a European perspective looks rather like a left-wing overtone, proves to be compatible with right-wing Populist attitudes—opposing real, generous, neighborly individualism with a conveniently foreign fragment of Old Corruption. The miners’ mob is a little more destructive, and any hope of progress would seem to lie, not in mass movements of any kind, but in a technical medical breakthrough by a dedicated individual. Certainly the left wing’s tendency to idealize the masses is unreal enough to warrant a great deal of contradiction, excessive though Vidor’s terms may seem to be (their inspiration apparently deriving from the Priestly riots which occurred over a century earlier). And yet, the film’s view of what the individual can hope to accomplish is a sober rather than a heroic one. In this sense, THE CITADEL represents a gradual evolution towards the chastened inspirationalism of H.M. PULHAM, ESQ.
From one angle, the film’s sobriety reflects the post-Depression stagnation which Arthur Mayer and Richard Griffith, in The Movies, describe as having continued until rearmament for World War II began to get the economy moving again. Perhaps it represents something of a drawn match between Vidor’s heroic optimism and A. J. Cronin’s dourer English view of the slowness of change. One certainly prefers it to the pusillanimous anti-reformism of Ealing England’s postwar counterparts, notably the “grin-and-bear-it” moral which betrays Pat Jäckson’s otherwise promising WHITE CORRIDORS. So far as acceptance and criticism goes, THE CITADEL seems a hybrid between Vidor’s most personal films and the assignments he accepted throughout his career. And its inspiration remains at a similar level: half and half.
If we take THE BIG PARADE, THE CROWD, HALLELUJAH!, and OUR DAILY BREAD as the most personal of Vidor’s pre-war films, they seem to imply that the individual’s relationship with the social system is a dialectic of acquiescence to it and a resistant indifference to its routines. The system is not the primary responsibility of the individual; he must play his part in it, but can do so only by following the logic of his own moral growth. And it is a common transcendentalist act of faith that a kind of moral egoism may be socially cohesive in the long run, even if it imposes something like dropping out in the short run. On the other hand, the individual requires community, and what distinguishes a free community system from a despotic one seems to be whether that community cherishes or stunts the individual’s growth. If, at its best, America’s community system cherishes individualism more than any other, then at its worst it abandons the individual to his own devices—as in OUR DAILY BREAD and THE CROWD. Nonetheless it allows response and escape, whether to a new community or to moral spaces within the system. In both respects, it differs from the old European community of WEDDING NIGHT. Above all, the rural American spirit unites individual, family, and community, and urges the individual’s life force into more generous moral forms which, far from repudiating selfishness, transcend it. And its concern for the individual’s freedom is the very reason why generosity should take the form of loyalty to it.
There is thus subtle (and abusable?) dialectic, or yin and yang, between the individual’s eluding of the system and his contribution to it. In THE CITADEL, the system is an Old World one, like the peasant family in WEDDING NIGHT. And although it’s true that the English may seem closer to the average American than the Poles, it’s also true that the upper-class English style may create as broad a gulf between character and spectator as, say, the ultra-WASPishness of Clifton Webb.
Given Hollywood’s freely admitted dislike for controversy, it seems unlikely that MGM would have considered making an equally incisive attack on American medicine. Perhaps the CITADEL exemplifies an intermittent American genre, whereby components of the American scene— which make good dramatic material but might run foul of resentment—can be hived off onto the Old World. Later essays in the genre would include Stanley Kubrick’s (and equally Kirk Douglas’s) PATHS OF GLORY, Swinging London sexmores films, and Sidney Lumet’s THE HILL (the last using the British military setting to say in the overground cinema what THE BRIG said about the U.S. Marines in the underground one). Some spectators will take the point, and mutter “Whom the cap fits Others can allow their conviction of America’s general moral superiority to override any other parallel. My intention isn’t to exonerate the British scene from American criticism—as my comment about WHITE CORRIDORS should make plain—but simply to suggest that THE CITADEL has as much to do with the American scene as THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY (where I have a faint suspicion that I can see the hypochondriac Tashlin expressing a radical discontent about unsocialized medicine while Jerry expresses his inspirationalist belief that, apart from the embarrassments of overearnestness and the old and shameable Mr. Big, things are at heart quite all right as they are).
But my suspicion that this American CITADEL really is about America would suggest that imperceptiveness on Vidor’s part isn’t the real reason for his Welsh miners turning into Bible Belt rioters, not so many years after the Scopes “monkey trial.” Vidor is postulating his co-operative ideal as the middle way between the moral dangers of Socialism and the problems implicit in an aggressively mercenary medical service—an issue to which he returns in BEYOND THE FOREST a decade later. But the hour of film noir has yet to strike. The combination of moral victory and social defeat in THE CITADEL marks an intermediate stage between the affirmation of OUR DAILY BREAD and the more somber view of BEYOND THE FOREST.
The film’s style, like that of H.M. PULHAM, ESQ., is relatively sober—almost as if, in these two films, Vidor were retreating into himself, no longer so confident in his earlier affirmations, yet refusing to renounce a sense of internal, spiritual freedom. THE CITADEL’S clubland setting, its somber mood, and the Gregg Toland influence all might have suggested dark, stuffy, oppressive interiors as its visual key, picking up on the staircase of THE CROWD. But Vidor prefers to place his characters in whitish, loose space. He is reserving their right to move in any emotional or moral direction they may choose, rather than making it seem natural for them to succumb to atmospheric pressures. The groupings and the acting similarly stress individual distinctness, rather than the Old-Boy network, and Vidor tends to watch his redoubtably expert actors being fascinatingly English, instead of tailoring their style to his continuity (as he regularly does in his “American” films).
But more than exotic interest is involved; there’s a similar sense of space in THE FOUNTAINHEAD, despite its lonelier and gloomier key. In both films, Vidor’s space shows a certain “instability” that indicates both moral freedom and moral uneasiness, although remaining boldly individualistic. Rosalind Russell lets the side down by admiring the hero’s ambitions as if he were her little boy doing well on Prize Day, and the beautiful Vidorian theme of female-maternal power sinks almost without trace under Momism à la Forties.
Vidor’s caveats about the intoxication of inspirationalism are indicated by two drunk scenes. In the first, two young G.P.’s are inspired by alcohol to blow up the pestilential sewer. In the second, an operation is botched and an innocent person dies. In another scene, a (really or apparently) dead baby revives, as its mother prevails upon the doctor to perform a “miracle” which he attempts—partly because her love inspires him to his best, and partly to live up to his own reassuring, bedside-manner lie, which he makes true. The ideal, though a lie, becomes truth, as love and desire ricochet from one person to another in a community internal to and separate from a deceptive system—using its forms, yet redeeming them. The film refers to these “supernaturalist” intoxications without convulsion or expansion of style, not through any failure, but because it is in the nature of medicine, as of any vocation, to link the sacred and the routine, the magic and the everyday. The theme of a “secret transcendence” of routine will be taken even further in H. M. PULHAM, ESQ.
One wishes that whoever planted the bombs for which the Angry Brigade were condemned, along with other would-be terrorist groups, would take their inspiration from the dynamiting of the sewer here instead. (It’s curious how often terrorists indulge a secret misanthropy by attacking people indiscriminately—sometimes even the classes they claim to be pledged to defend—rather than functional emblems of their oppression.) Just as OUR DAILY BREAD anticipates the interest in communes of the EASY RIDER period, and just as THE WEDDING NIGHT anticipates a renewed interest in ethnocultural problems, so here does Vidor’s theme—the reformation or disruption of a system—link with the left-wing anarchism of the Sixties. In its pale, methodical, bland way, the film maintains Vidor’s spiritual vitality, not only in its joy in direct action, but in its counseling of an irreducible patience. “Pessimism of the intelligence; patient optimism of the will.” “Left” and “right” in politics close into a circle, not only in Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism, but also in the dimension of anarchism; Puritanism and utilitarianism may lie encoiled within each other to balance or betray.
Spencer Tracy in Northwest Passage (1939)
Northwest Passage (1939)
The film’s title is slightly misleading, being normally associated with exploration around Baffin’s Bay, whereas this story’s theme and location ought to carry the title NORTHWEST TERRITORY. Perhaps that phrase was taken up in the second part, initially planned, and then considered to be too static for a film which is, at least, organized around an epic march and a Canadian association.
Its use of the novel’s original title, Rogers’ Rangers, would have underlined this movie’s ancestorship of Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS. As Spencer Tracy’s men trek and fight their way through the Injun-infested forests up from Idaho, so Jeff Chandler’s slog and slug it out through the Nip-infested jungles of Pacific islands. Once our tough guys get into action they’ll slaughter redskins or yellowbellies before you can say “genocide.” The real battle is that grueling long haul of the will against fatigue, hunger, rage, weakness, insubordination, and a certain excess of zeal which in Vidor’s film is incarnated by one man’s reversion to cannibalism. Also more dangerous than Rogers’ human enemies, the Iroquois and the French, are his allies, the weak and treacherous English who wouldn’t mind at all if the Americans were led astray or scalped in their tents by unreliable Mohawk guides. As in MERRILL’s MARAUDERS, there is a quick, exceptionally violent battle halfway through’ against an enemy whom one is uncomplicatedly required to pulverize—by patriotic duty, by self-preservation, and by their basic nastiness. But that success brings grimmer, more intimate, stoic, and frightening matters in their wake—the internal battles of military necessity. Should one slaughter one’s wounded or leave them to the enemy’s tortures? Can one bully one’s demoralized men through the swamp? How can one reconcile the military autocracy implicit in the corps’ names (Rogers’, Merrill’s) with democracy? And both films share the visual motif of green-clad men sweating, stumbling, floundering, killing through the foliage.
Vidor was certainly in the vanguard of a mood, deploying what were to become favorite motifs of later war films (with Fuller bringing up the rear). Rogers (Spencer Tracy) takes a personal interest in each and every one of his men (an idea which, plausible enough here, reaches a nadir of sentimentality in THE TANKS ARE COMING, a Korean War—epoch recap of World War Il, which may have reassured American Moms, but had British squaddies falling about laughing). With him comes young Langdon Towne (Robert Young), a civilian whose role, as artist-cartographer, suggests something of the title’s historical associations. He hasn’t had the benefit of backwoods toughening; his military father-figure must wheedle him (“Come on…”), taunt him (with the idea of another man having his girl), and command him (“Left! Right! Left! Right!”) to make him, temporarily, an automaton of reflex obedience, a soldier briefly, for his own good.
Thus the theme provides a tougher variation on the theme of THE BIG PARADE, with fate reduced to human moral purpose and morale. When there is widespread disagreement with the hitherto autocratic Rogers, he allows a vote, is defeated, and defers to popular judgment. As a result, a quarter of the men are lost, horribly tortured by the Frenchmen’s Indians. The preference for the strong leader as against a pettifogging democracy is reaffirmed from OUR DAILY BREAD. Rogers doesn’t merely save his men, but makes them more than men: “Men—we’ve been trapped before. And we’ve got out of it by doing the impossible. We’re not going to stop now.” Thus the resort to quick motion at the end pf HALLELUJAH! and OUR DAILY BREAD finds its brusquer, brasher equivalent.
Any criticism of the democratic principle is canceled out by the special context, of military discipline in the first place, of requirements of specialist knowledge (Rogers’) in the second place, and of the number of volunteer scoundrels who accepted the expeditions’ conditions in the third place. Nonetheless, the question of the majority principle is raised, and the film clearly intends to inflict on the audience the exhilarating shock which so often distinguishes the audacious entertainer-artist from the mere entertainer. (The latter exploits a consensus without exploring the internal tensions which artists touch on because they, in their honesty, are profoundly perplexed and torn—consciously or unconsciously.)
Given the paternalist aspects of the context, the film celebrates the superiority of the superior man (Rogers), and the joyful acquiescence in his superiority of those whom he benefits; it comes from a reciprocation of magnanimity between the leaders and the led. To obey is perhaps to be ennobled by the acceptance of another’s strength. In equating “democracy” with insubordination, and insubordination with weakness, Vidor is challenging (almost before it has fossilized into a stereotype) that species of Hollywood sentimentality whereby an insubordinate streak expresses a virile independence. It may also be that military contexts afforded a particularly stylized setting for pervasive tensions of peacetime competition, anomie, and Depression, and largely accounted for the popularity of the war film after 1 945; even Ford idolizes the Seventh Cavalry, whose primary job was to harry and persecute the Indians. At any rate, NORTHWEST PASSAGE raises the democratic principle in the military context as if to point to the very tensions which later films were to smooth over. (Much later, Peckinpah resharpens them, with equally ambivalent effect, in MAJOR DUNDEE, where, oddly, the enemy is again the French.)
Given the context of its period setting, Vidor’s film celebrates the early American gift for radical improvisation in matters of government and constitution. Tragic mistakes are made; their cost is heavy. But effective adaptation to principle prevails over the dead hand of principle—even though the pragmatic turn of mind has to brace itself for a certain, not so much utilitarianism as “brutilitarianism.” After the McCarthy period, it is difficult to forget the affinities between this aspect of the pioneer spirit and the revisionist attitude towards Constitutional rights so aggressively maintained by the “pseudo-conservatism” described by Richard Hofstadter. The “switchover” in NORTHWEST PASSAGE is impeccable: Rogers assents to the majoritarian principle, just as John in OUR DAILY BREAD is ready to cede his property rights. In the general context of the NORTHWEST PASSAGE story, no democrat who isn’t also a dogmatic anarchist will object to the expedition’s autocracy. Nevertheless, the general thrust of the thought here clearly includes the kind of Nietzschean elitism that Vidor will affirm still more emphatically in THE FOUNTAINHEAD—although, of course, elitism in a democratic context differs from an elitist authoritarianism tout court.
Towne, the artist-mapmaker-civilian, may correspond to THE BIG PARADE’s Apperson, with his detached, contemplative humanity (an aspect which will be resumed in WAR AND PEACE’s Pierre, as he watches the battle); and Rogers’ purpose may remind us of the born killer in Slim. But the quality of mercy to be found in THE BIG PARADE is conspicuous by its absence here. One wonders if NORTHWEST PASSAGE is urging Americans to brace themselves for the coming struggle with an extremely ferocious enemy, Nazi Germany. On the other hand, Rogers’ extremely unreliable enemies are the English, and his extremely perfidious enemies include the French—so that the moral is just as likely to be isolationist. This ambiguity would be a natural method of steering clear of contemporary parallels. One catches a general mood, but contradictory implications either cancel or balance out. Thus, each spectator can select whichever meanings help him enjoy the film, and either overlook those which would offend him or lightly dismiss them as historical details that are no longer relevant. Indeed, the disappearance of past hostilities may engender exhilaration, without similar reflections dulling enthusiasm about present hostilities.
Most spectators normally respond along such lines, mainly for the sake of enjoying films’ excitements—although critics who don’t approve of a film, whether on aesthetic or other grounds, are likely to overlook all those aspects of which they might approve, and notice only those they detest! One reason why patriotic epics regularly revert to the past is that unwelcome contemporary dissensions are dissolved in a general air of traditional unity, as with HENRY V, ALEXANDER NEVSKY, et al. And the old-fangled, mean, Tory-like style of the English in NORTHWEST PASSAGE insures that British audiences won’t identify with them either: they’re yesterday’s tyrants for Britain as well as for America. Thus the film is quite capable of being taken as a call to intervention by interventionists, and as a call to strenuous self-reliance by isolationists. This convenient ambiguity (plus the fact that, around the time of the film’s action, the Canadian provinces were thought to pose a threat to the U.S.) suggests that, throughout history, America’s only real ally—and her only real enemy—has been herself.
To say that NORTHWEST PASSAGE accommodates isolationism (rather like THE BIG PARADE) is not to say that it urges it. It just has no quarrel with it. A generation of Cold War after the film, it’s easy to forget that isolationism was a serious political option, even if we distinguish it from nonmilitary interventionism. The latter did indeed prevail politically, for all of Roosevelt’s secret schemes, until 1941, when Pearl Harbor gave the patriotism which underlay isolationism no choice but to turn militarist—and later, of course, to adopt an anti-Communism so expansionist that American conscripts took the Northwest Passage to Korea, the Southwest Passage to Vietnam, and the Eastern passage to West Berlin. Isolationism was so prevalent in 1941 that Britain’s Ministry of Information commissioned THE FORTY-NINTH PARALLEL (another story of the Canadian border) to combat it, and Hitchcock was undoubtedly doing his British duty in making FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (for Walter Wanger, a Hollywood interventionist, not to say a “premature anti-Fascist”).
A recent article by Michael Howard in the London Sunday Times reminds us that, while the English and the French tended, from 1939, to assume America’s sympathetic support, the view from across the Atlantic could be very different: “They had already been had once, British propaganda and diplomacy had got them into one war to defend democracy. The result had been democratic humiliation, domestic bitterness, a ravaged Europe and a vastly increased British Empire. Why should they do it again?” With this in mind, NORTHWEST PASSAGE looks to me, on balance, like an expresion of faith in American and in America only; no need therefore to wage a European war. (It would be pleasant to see it as a retort, by an ex-colony, to British imperialist films like THE FOUR FEATHERS and THE DRUM, with which another ex-Hungarian, Sir Alexander Korda, was assaulting the American market, in the name of his adopted country.)
Once again, Vidor’s stance contrasts in an intriguing and complex way with John Ford’s. Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME takes Eugene O’Neill’s sailors across the Atlantic to be menaced by U-Boats and strafed by Heinkels while carrying munitions to Britain—an act by which the Germans were understandably provoked, and which Roosevelt was using to make “a shooting war inevitable.” But Ford as an Irish-American might be expected to remember the Black-and-Tans, and his remarks in a recent BBC television interview with Philip Jenkinson left little doubt that he had a certain anti-British animus on the tip of his mind, thirty-five years after THE INFORMER. Which may explain why THE LONG VOYAGE HOME features a contemptuous caricature of a Blimpish Tory Briton who takes it for granted that American merchantmen should brave the U-Boats for the sake of a nation which (as the wartime I.R.A. tended to argue) had oppressed the Irish quite as systematically, and for centuries, as the Nazis intended to oppress Europe. At any rate, this early brief encounter in Ford’s movie is lightweight compared to its climactic anti-Nazi emphasis (it’s another Wanger production); but Ford’s endorsement of a pro-British, anti-Nazi policy isn’t without its concessive clause. NORTHWEST PASSAGE, for all the grim exuberance of its military adventure, strikes me as less a call to arms than a caution. True patriotism entails America über alles—or, to use a more neutral phrase: America First, Last, and All The Time.
Nonetheless, both NORTHWEST PASSAGE and THE LONG VOYAGE HOME were designed, for obvious commercial reasons, to maintain a certain ambiguity. And it’s quite clear that the whole question of what constitutes a film’s “real” meaning is due for revision. Is it the meaning that only one critic has been able to see, by the light of a uniquely accurate reading of a text? or that which most of its spectators saw in fact (even if they were leaping to conclusions unjustified by the text)? or some compromise between these positions? or what? It might help to distinguish an “intrinsic” (textual) meaning from a ‘prevalent contemporary” reading, but it’s quite obvious that further complications must appear, and my own hunch is that NORTHWEST PASSAGE is one of very many Hollywood films which exemplify them. It’s meant to be read in different ways by different spectators. And although I’d guess that Vidor’s preference went to the “isolationist” reading, no logical grounds exist for dismissing the possibility that the ambiguities are meant to defuse and distract from any possible meaning, and that it expresses either uncertainty or neutrality or both on Vidor’s, or MGM’s, part. One should also differentiate an appropriate recognition of ambiguity from dogmatic assumptions that entertainment films are never political (contrary examples are too numerous and obvious), or that political meanings are never seen (OUR DAILY BREAD shows that they are), as well as from a lazy solipsism. One has to acknowledge the plurality of cultures and views among spectators, but without reverting to that pseudo-objectivity which in fact denies all subjectivities but one.
The film probably registers, and perhaps primarily, a hardening of mood whose origin is domestic rather than international. For one reason or another, Hollywood generally was reviving the Indian wars on a lavish scale (vide De Mille’s THE PLAINSMAN and Ford’s DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK), although only as part of a wholesale resurgence of Westerns generally, the Wild West being a very convenient area for violence enjoyed for its own sake and abstracted from any controversial context.
The whole study of cycles throughout the Thirties is rendered very difficult by the double intervention of the Hays Code, which quite artificially curtailed or weakened certain themes and genres, and the pressure of Hollywood ideology. Hollywood’s rightwards bias was only intermittently conspicuous (as in the movie campaign against Upton Sinclair, or Fox’s having to conceal the real theme of THE GRAPES OF WRATH from its financing bank, or Vidor’s having to finance OUR DAILY BREAD himself on account of its criticism of banks), but was presumably continuous.
When, around 1930-’34, the gangster film attained its first zenith of popularity, the Western was in relative eclipse, and it is toward the gangster film, with its contemporary, city setting, that much of the Hays Code ire was directed. It seems worth advancing the hypothesis that it was the issues aroused by this setting which upset the Hays Office. After all, so much of the Hays Code now looks ideological, in its intentions as well as its effects, even though it could be accepted in its time as largely a matter of sex-and-violence morality.
The gangster film diversified in various ways. But the gradual weakening of its sense of shock and scandal was accompanied by the return of the Western, which stole, i.e. perpetuated, the gangster movie’s blood-and-thunder, while placing it in a context which was reassuring both as myth and as moral rural puritanism. But the increased intensity of the violence reveals an underlying premonition of film noir. In this connection it is worth remembering that two film noir Westerns, THE OUTLAW and DUEL IN THE SUN, were ahead of their time in successfully defying the Code and the pressure groups whose notions it represented.
My suggestion is that gangster and Western movies are complementary genres—unsynthesized thesis and antithesis, as it were. If they continue separate existences, it is not only because of the country-city dichotomy traditional in American thinking, but also so as to spare everyone involved the controversies which might arise, were their synthesis achieved. For such a synthesis would sooner or later involve many of the very touchy social issues traced in Kenneth Allsopp’s The Bootleggers, Andrew Sinclair’s Prohibition, and the chapters on the respectability and normality of crime in America in Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology.
Intermittently, fragments of such a synthesis do appear on the screen. Thus the Western baddy often imports his most evil gunman from the city (so that the cities were wilder than the West). And the banks which are robbed by Bonnie and Clyde have just foreclosed on a tenant farmer, like the bank which sets the Joad family on its reverse (East-to-West) odyssey in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.
Bonnie and Clyde are, of course, rural gangsters, not city ones, and WASPs rather than Wops.
The popularity of both genres eventually coincided during the Sixties. This may well have been largely a result of the loss of the less violent family audience to TV, but the same genres loom large enough there, and the doubled popularity of screen violence preludes a decade of obvious social crisis, which for the first time was felt as a matter of nationwide morale rather than city-vs-country.
If the gangster film was most heavily leaned on by the censors, it was presumably because it most readily involves topical social criticism (in which respect ON THE WATERFRONT is particularly bold, maybe because labor racketeering is its foreground issue). I can’t help suspecting that the Mafia is currently being used to distract attention from the far wider involvements in racketeering, and a very more prevalent cynicism, along the lines sketched by Daniel Bell. A full analysis of these complex interactions would require a book, and involve considering the Nazis and Communists as gangster-surrogates of their periods; as well as fantasy-thrillers à la James Bond, with their not always altogether abstract international politics, racism, and technological paranoia.
Vidor had been ahead of the Hollywood game in his admiration of violence (in its destructive as well as constructive mode) when, in 1930, he proposed to Irving Thalberg a version of BILLY THE KID in which, it seems, the outlaw kills one person after another, always with some sort of justification according to the Code of the West, such as an insult to his mother. Thalberg insisted on watering it down, but Vidor cites a gangster film, PUBLIC ENEMY, which appeared the following year, as the box-office vindication of his original idea.
In NORTHWEST PASSAGE, briefly-recounted tales of Indian atrocities are sufficient to justify the extraordinary sense of violence in the punitive attack on an enemy village in Canada. Cannons are fired into the sleeping officers’ rooms, the tents are set ablaze while their occupants sleep, the others are herded into a square so that volley after volley may be poured into a virtually defenseless mass of flesh. The whole sequence is so rapidly and tightly rhythmed that it might almost have been planned with a metronome and a drum, like the “visual music” of OUR DAILY BREAD and the “ballet of death” in THE BIG PARADE. Only this time we’re dishing it out instead of taking it, an experience which is more exhilarating or more disturbing or both, according to moral taste. It isn’t as easy as criticism sometimes assumes to spirit oneself back thirty years in time, and to imagine with what mixture of the two emotions an audience would have received the scene. And certainly a 1973 reaction doesn’t represent “posterity”—only another, maybe less relevant period.
At any rate, the audience of this film’s time was less used to wholesale slaughter than is today’s. I’ve a suspicion that two years later, in SERGEANT YORK, Howard Hawks took some trouble to prepare a mise-en-scéne in which the ex-pacifist war hero picks off unsuspecting Germans only slightly from behind but still very much from one side, rather than shooting them right in the back, which the Western code didn’t allow although the rules of war do. But Hawks’s film involves itself in a peculiar entanglement between the manly-rustic code and mass warfare, in a way that NORTHWEST PASSAGE doesn’t. Hawks smoothes the tensions over, whereas Vidor allows an underlying uneasiness to be felt, which is one reason why his seems to me a vastly preferable film. The Code of the West (which only applied among white men anyway) forbade shooting a man as he slept, but Vidor brazenly, sensibly applies the military code to an enemy that deserves to die for its military slackness—or for that other, altogether amoral military reason: having the bad luck to come up against the even more effectively ferocious enemy which every army strives to be. Here (as again when Rogers lovingly bullies the mapmaker into step, to save him from collapse), a certain military pride and life force become one.
It is perhaps this film which ushers in the thirty-year period during which Ford, Hawks, and Hollywood generally keep returning to the military detachment as the symbol of loyalty and community in a manner suggesting, not merely the global military presence of which America felt required between Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, but domestic issues summarized and given an optimistic conclusion, notably in Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and Kelly-Donen’s IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. Or (as the French Fascists Bardéche and Brasillach wrote of Renoir’s LA GRANDE ILLUSION) “It is neither [Renoir’s] fault nor ours, if some men were able to experience [in war] something which they have been unable to experience since Having turned his back on the tenement jungle, a gifted youth like Sam in STREET SCENE finds relief from the nervous tensions of the lonely crowd only in the rigid community and uncomplicatedly externalized aggression of another kind of servitude et grandeur militaires.”
Of all Vidor’s films, NORTHWEST PASSAGE most clearly demonstrates how vitalism may, by imperceptible stages, shade into that variety of Social Darwinism, red in tooth and claw, which one may call patriotic or chauvinistic or jingoistic, depending on whether one is a brave American, a slaughtered Frenchman, a treacherous English gentleman, or an Indian. The film’s moral balance might have been more audacious still had the enemy not been presented as morally debased; had the battle been between sides as morally matched (as individuals) as Northern and Southern soldiers in the Civil War. Then, Vidor might have had to call on the profounder spiritual resources of a transcendentalism, in tension and balance, perhaps, against a Social Darwinist acceptance of realpolitik and a merely personal, that is, a human, tragedy. Even so, the film leaves one shaken by its violence in a way in which the tactfully abstract bloodbath at the end of STAGECOACH or the very highly moralized Injun-killing of the heroic civilian community in DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK does not—which seems to me to be certainly to its artistic credit, and perhaps also its moral one. Vidor is not quite as innocent as Ford pretends to be.
My hunch would be that, in its time, this carnage provoked a reaction wherein exhilaration and triumph were uppermost, but accompanied by an undertow of horror which, while too weak to reverse our sympathies, is sufficiently strong to evoke a sense of excess, of hubris, such that it’s not just the morally squeamish who may feel that the hardships of the long trek back are endowed with an almost expiatory quality. A hero maddened by his physical suffering secretes an Indian head in his kit and nibbles at it for subsistence, sharing with his buddies what they think is meat. (One innocently says, “I’ll have a bit of the red.”) As a madman, he has to die, but Rogers salutes him as a brave man for whose mental wound no one, or only the enemy, can be held responsible. Cannibalism is a more eccentric and private form of atrocity than those which warfare only too regularly unleashes, and it opens up gradually after 1945, until the savagery wreaked upon an Indian’s woman’s breasts in NEVADA SMITH turns into something quite recognizably like the involvement of women and children in My Lai in SOLDIER BLUE. But the cannibal theme intermittently appears in American literature, notably Melville’s Typee, as the fly in the ointment, or the worm in the apple, of the noble savage, whose proclivities in that direction may not altogether condemn him, but do represent a substantial concession by American romanticism to a Calvinist, or common-sense, notion of human depravity.
In NORTHWEST PASSAGE, the enemies of the Americans are an alliance of the overcivilized (French and English) with ignoble savages (Iroquois and Mohawks). Between these two extremes the Americans, if they’re hardly a golden mean, nonetheless do just contrive to hold a natural, decent, affirmative human norm. Vidor’s Indians are in equally bad moral odor whichever side they’re on—savage enemies and treacherous friends. And clearly no American-vs-British moral contrast is intended when I say that it’s a relief to turn from all the tough-minded moral half-truths of the American tradition (Vidor-Ford-Fuller-Peckinpah) to Peter Watkins’s CULLODEN, which restores one’s faith in the cinema’s ability to mingle a disturbing honesty with a decent compassion (the Scottish clans as Indian tribes). At any rate, Vidor’s NORTHWEST PASSAGE makes THE ALAMO look as phony as a De Mille disaster.
Since the ending of Vidor’s film was shot by another director, and Vidor dislikes it, it’s difficult to know to whom to attribute the dialogue, or, no less significant, the tone of voice employed, as the mapmaker all but longs to leave his bride and to set off on another (carnivorous?) expedition. (Baden-Powell draws blood—as he meant to.) There are nostalgias of one kind, and of another, and one can imagine more careful direction making the “same” scene rather less callow. This “militarist” emphasis is the generous “weakness” of a youth who has found his father-figure and conquered fear; and it could administer as salutary a shock to the too-easy assumption that suburban “happy-ever-after” is preferable to any other life style. Certainly the era of Hollywood misogyny was about to begin, and the film may be touching on the links—established, and possibly exaggerated, by many American writers—between American womanhood and pacifist attitudes. Up to this point, at least, a certain warmth and responsiveness in Tracy’s style makes Rogers another man altogether from the man whom John Wayne, say, would have created. A pity, then, that when Tracy is required to say that his troops will set off “as soon as the last glow of the evening sun has left the sky,” he nervously resorts to a quick grin, as if sensing that this touch of Griffith’s poetic gravitas, which has somehow remained in the script, had outlived its time. A development of this sense of dignity brings us back to that sense of both sides as, in some sense, honorable, which Griffith could bring to the battle scenes of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
Part of the tragedy might indeed have been that the Americans, the French, the English. and the Indians were all behaving according to different senses of the concept “honor”—a concept still controversial when it made its postwar bow with THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. For even transcendentalism, by its alliance with an expansionist Puritanism, can accommodate an identification of everything alien with the morally inferior who are destined for the rubbish heap of history. The boundaries between “rosy” and ‘ ‘black” transcendentalisms are never easy to draw. For just as the apparent “acceptance” of pantheism may lead also to an “acceptance” of amoral sturm-und-drang, so doctrines of wise resignation to fate may lead to a “wise” acceptance of one’s own side’s atrocities (although one nonetheless tends to be indignant about the enemy’s). And if all brave warriors return their life force to the cosmic cycle, what price a Geneva Convention?
The artists whose work, in its challenge and frankness, makes us most uneasy are often those who best help us to live out aspects of those problems which no moral philosophers have yet settled to universal satisfaction. Transcendentalism and Social Darwinism may call on each other’s rhetoric for mutual camouflage; nevertheless, NORTHWEST PASSAGE (even more than its nearest counterparts by Fuller and Peckinpah) brings us close to that honest uneasiness which denies us the complacency of imagining that we can answer the problem by some general moral prescription about the spirit in which war should be waged.
As Michel Delahaye observes (in the best of the Cahiers articles on Vidor), Vidor’s orchestration of the elements involves a fascinating complexity. NORTHWEST PASSAGE depends on paradoxes of the elements: the men are marched across the torrential river as if it were dry land, while the whale boats have to carried through forests. In OUR DAILY BREAD consistency becomes excess (drought), and men must work like madmen to restore the proper intrication of the elements (the irrigation ditch). In RUBY GENTRY the town’s enemy seems to be the sea (the marsh, drownings, floodings) but is really the town’s pusillanimity. In HALLELUJAH! the revivalist service—which is at least an image of Heaven—involves the green pastures, the river Jordan, and the ritual descent of the human body, guided by the spirit, into the saving waters (rites of another kind of passage). In NORTHWEST PASSAGE, what Vidor calls “human chains” across the swollen river are another kind of baptism—into military manhood. Of the connection throughout Vidor’s work of forests, swamps, and killing, something has already been said.
We may further pursue the dubious but interesting hypothesis of an Eastern European inheritance in Vidor’s vision. The slaughter of the dazed, half-asleep, virtually helpless enemy, and the troops’ demoralizing retreat, in NORTHWEST PASSAGE, evoke certain themes of Jancso: the atrocities, the numbness of mind, the nihilistic braveries. In their very contrast, the differences between Vidor’s powerful ‘rooting interest” and Jancso’s cold eye on chivalry and tyranny correlate exactly with their different viewpoints. And both may strike one as slightly subversive, even as to “our side’s” right to shoot down “the other side” like dogs.
I have suggested elsewhere that the art of the absurd is a cold mode of expressionism; and the novels of Kafka make our transition obvious enough. And if “hot” expressionism is a desperate form of romanticism, with an undeniable connection to Emersonian transcendentalism, then the Vidor and Jancso films are like two rivers flowing in opposite directions from a common source. Another common factor may be found in Nietzsche; Janko Lavrin stresses some of Nietzsche’s Eastern European connections and sympathies, and Emerson’s Essays acknowledge his influence. The films of Jancso, at once expressionist and absurdist, are all but Kafka’s very un-Vidorian pessimism translated into very Vidorian terms of ferocious action in heroic exteriors.
With WAR AND PEACE, Vidor will return to the balance of THE BIG PARADE. The assertion will be, not of pacifism against aggressive defense, nor of aggressive defense against pacifism, but rather a complex, indeed a virtually dialectical interaction between a pacific detachment and a communal responsibility. NORTHWEST PASSAGE and its successors, H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. and AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, all but constitute a trilogy dedicated to an acceptance of the American status quo—and its vindication against the criticism or the uneasiness which is still allowed to appear, although more forcefully avowed, in most of his other important films.
A scene still of Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
Each morning Harry Pulham (Robert Young) performs his complacent, middle-aged routine. Fussily he turns his breakfast egg in its cup and slices off its shell. The deathlike clicking of the clock only underlines the distance between his spouse and himself. But in his walk to work through the park, a minimal but potentially crucial responsiveness appears: he throws bread to the squirrels.
An invitation to a reunion with the companions of his college days sets him reviewing, in flashback, his past life, which seems hardly more inspiring than his present one. He reviews his conflicts with his prosperous father (Charles Coburn); his college days and hopes, and his gradual disillusionments; and his affair with Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr), an immigrant’s daughter working ambitiously in a New York advertising office. She, at least, is determined not to remain a face in the crowd, and her hectic New York worldliness contrasts with Harry’s reserved, private, quietly stuffy existence. If their complementary disaffinities inspire a love affair, they also doom it; his rigid individuality jars with her nervous ambition.
Yet perhaps, in the end, Harry’s weakness reveals itself as an involuntary expression of integrity, an instinctive self-preservation. It closes one path, but it opens another. Deadened as he has become, it takes only a gesture from his wife (Ruth Hussey) for him to realize that he need only become alive to her to live, to recover a modicum of happiness, of self-respect, and of that clear conscience so dear to Bostonian rectitude. Subsequently, his morning walk through the park seems less dull.
Some of Vidor’s favorite themes are clear enough. To the city girl Harry prefers his home and spiritual roots. His rediscovered life force makes his plain wife as fetching as the other woman; and here there isn’t the glamorizing which is a tiny flaw in OUR DAILY BREAD. His fascination with an attractive but selfish woman is found to be not romantic but an indication of misdirected vitality. The stuffy discontent that imprisons him in his humdrum sensibility may have its origin in his being a “poor little rich boy”—a John who was never drawn down into the liberating vulgarity of the crowd. Still, one doesn’t need to be ruined to change, and Harry’s final acquiescence in what he has become is not an easy and complacent surrender to passive conformity, but a rebirth as crucial as John’s laughter at the clown in THE CROWD.
This film’s challenge is precisely its assertion of suburban routine and of the pious virtues, when deliberately chosen, as one of the forms of profounder freedom. The film’s whole structure is dedicated to this twist. Its deft, rapid flashbacks seem to be leading up to some liberation, whether by a new romance, or just by flight, or maybe by a gesture of rebellion in the spirit of J.P. Priestley’s LAST HOLIDAY. But if a sudden nostalgia is necessary to provoke the pain of scrutinizing a lifetime lost, its very keenness absolves Harry from what might have been a provocation, by guilt, toward a merely destructive renunciation.
From another angle, H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. marks a significant juncture in the pattern of Hollywood genres and cycles. It repudiates both the exotic vamp cycle (from the silent era, lingering on through Garbo, Dietrich, and Hedy Lamarr) and the soft yet dynamic romanticism of Frank Borzage. It centers on a Bostonian WASP hero—or anti-hero, since Harry Pulham could be interpreted from an un-Vidorian position as something of a man without individual qualities. The choice of an ultra-WASP tradition seems more specific than the paraphrase suggested in our discussions of THE CROWD and THE WEDDING NIGHT. For, with business picking up in 1940, the American middle class could congratulate itself again on their America, which had survived the Depression and all those threatened upheavals which some thought the New Deal would bring.
From this angle, H.M. PULHAM represents an early essay in a genre whose best-known example is THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT. In both films, a man with a set of moral principles he fears have become outdated must compose an essay which becomes a moral self-examination—the last expression, almost, of the diary-keeping New England conscience. Pulham performs this self-invigilation to present himself to a community from which he has strayed. (Thus, on another social level, Sam in STREET SCENE might, twenty-five years later, have met once more with the friends and neighbors of his youth.) Nunnally Johnson’s hero, Tom Rath, must invade his own privacy by constructing a factitious autobiography for a prospective employer; the still-small voice of the diary may be obliterated by the publicity image. Rath combines the two, achieving success by becoming average—and private. Pulham, confronted with the advertising girl, also withdraws.
Each of these two films moves in its own orbit around a common problem. Pulham’s world has survived (whence his reborn spirituality), but he has survived into an America in which the Sams and the Manyas, like Marvin Myles, have created their brighter, more anomic city world. City America has triumphed; the virgin forest has become a well-manicured park; and individual integrity is thought to be stuffy or suicidal in the executive suites where selfish opportunism seems fittest to survive. In its elegiac aspect, H. M. PULHAM relates also to a little cycle of domestic dramas (notably THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, CITIZEN KANE, THE LITTLE FOXES) set against the background of stuffily respectable upper-middie-class life, whose bleak, exclusive values are menaced, or captured, or surrounded, or infiltrated by commercial vulgarities and cynicism—qualities these films present as newer than the economic historians might altogether agree.’
CITIZEN KANE also takes the form of a review—not by a diary but by a mass media exteriority (“News on the March”) and a private-eye figure (the reporter). There the spiritual cousin to Harry Pulham and Tom Rath is Kane’s drama reviewer Jed Leland, who represents Kane’s integrity, and who is also tested by the writing of an essay: about a performer (Susan Alexander Kane) who is both another of Kane’s alter egos and a puppet of publicity. (It isn’t difficult to imagine Joseph Cotten as H. M. Pulham in Vidor’s film.) Sharing both a year of release (1941) and the flashback form, CITIZEN PULHAM and C. F. KANE, ESQ. each survey their own slice of Americana. What Welles would have had to say about Pulham would doubtless be as ironic and as pitying as what he had to say about Kane. If Welles scarcely concerns himself overmuch with the Johns and Marys and Pulhams and Vidor’s humble yet transcendental men, it is because he chooses to reduce apparent successes to their proper size. And if Vidor rarely seems preoccupied with “the great,” it is because he chooses to endorse the American dream—at least in its moral terms.
But the most obvious variation on Vidor’s theme is Albert Lewin’s THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, whose hero renounces his gray-flannel existence for a South Seas exoticism in which Vidor had already accomplished one well-remembered exercise: BIRD OF PARADISE, a last gasp of the late-silent vogue for Polynesian romance (WHITE SHADOWS OF THE SOUTH SEAS, TABU). From the Vidor film’s noble-savage ethos, Lewin derived a Decadent (Wildean) rather than a Symbolist meaning, worlds apart from the contemporaneous degradation of the earlier cycle into Forties kitsch on the Dorothy Lamour—Betty Grable level. H. M. PULHAM, ESQ. and THE MOON AND SIXPENCE share the light, white, flat lighting that seems to have been an attractive alternative to the more oppressive, claustrophobic styles favored by Welles and Wyler, for reasons touched on in discussing THE CITADEL. More fitting to Vidor’s theme than Lewin’s, it seems to set the key of Vidor’s brief ventures into physical sensation—the love scene in the snow; the sudden appearance of a naked newborn babe (as in THE CROWD and THE CITADEL); the gray sobriety of Pulham’s mien, as if his clothes were part of him and he would be denatured without them. The film twins with THE CROWD insofar as a babe who enters this world, trailing clouds of glory, or rather potentiality, all but fails in his self-appointed tasks, and yet saves his soul, which is, at least, a corner of the universe. Il faut cultiver son âme. In this respect it reiterates, in less striking terms, the public defeat and private victory of THE CITADEL. The inhumanity comes not from ambition within and indifference without, but from complacency within and routine without. Manson’s defeat in THE CITADEL is taken even further, for there, at least, his efforts end in limited successes.
Pulham loses and wins himself morally, so that Vidor’s individualistic transcendentalism coincides with a kind of velvet-gloved Puritanism whose very challenge lies in the subtlety of the conflicts and the manner in which self-salvation counterfeits conformity. If Pulham is less a moral exemplar than John in OUR DAILY BREAD, he’s not one of Vidor’s moral losers. For Pulham to labor under guilt and shame over his lost impulses and his lost years would be to renounce the freedom of spirit which makes him the spiritual peer of Zeke (HALLELUJAH!) and Sam (STREET SCENE) and all of those Vidor heroes who renounce the constrictions of their past for a wider, more impalpable unity. He does so within the framework of his home, just as Zeke leaves home only to return. Its interiority may seem evasive or challenging, conformist or profound, by comparison with, say, Kurosawa’s IKIRU.
Although Vidor’s autobiography makes a point of his enthusiasm for the subject, one would, without that, have assumed it to be spiritually an MGM project in which Vidor’s touch can consistently be recognized, and which occasionally becomes a Vidor film. Did purely physical matters like production schedules somehow clip his wings, or inhibit his making contact, through the images or the actors, with the strength of involuntary and unconscious spiritual resistance to circumstance and consciousness? PULHAM doesn’t bring out the hysteria underlying the rigid defenses which blind their victim to the everyday. Nor does it quite achieve that turnaround which asserts the wife’s discreet patience as a period of suffering and strength, at once anguished and magic. Unlike KANE, its egoistic perspective overwhelms its critical angles, and the film remains a real but minor challenge, divested as it is of its transcendentalist ironies, and made too much in its hero’s image.
It’s intriguing to toy with the speculation that H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. is, in a sense, an attempt by Vidor to vindicate an aspect of his own career—the turn it had been taking at MGM. It’s a vindication of impersonality, a vindication honest enough to reveal the main lines of a subjacent criticism. As THE CROWD makes quite clear, Vidor never postulated worldly success, or some nonconformist posture, or some superhuman effort in an organic community. Still less would one expect the transcendentalist Vidor, however substantial his Puritanical streak, to consider America so hopelessly corrupt that a profound and strenuous acquiescence in its ordinary aspects would be a moral surrender. Furthermore, PULHAM is a film of its time, which no doubt influenced its director too; and its affirmation complements, without contradicting, the affirmations of NORTHWEST PASSAGE and AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. The transcendentalist, of necessity, contains multitudes. His father’s house has many mansions; and, no doubt, as many entrances—and exits. For it’s an easy slide from maintaining, despite everything, an optimistic heroism throughout the Depression, to an acquiescence which is also quiescence.
Taking SHOW PEOPLE as a model, one could mock up a scenario about a film director who, in the looser production days of THE BIG PARADE, was lionized at MGM; who was bold and bloody-minded enough to quit the studios when the spirit moved him to make OUR DAILY BREAD; but who now, in the more tightly knit Forties under Louis B. Mayer (no one’s favorite movie mogul), found himself going to work in the mornings like H. M. Pulham Our scenario is doubtless a figment of the critical imagination, but it would move conveniently on to the point where the repudiation of misgivings, in a feature about a man like Pulham, leads to the strenuously affirmative project of AN AMERICAN ROMANCE (whose very title is a riposte to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy). And that film is amputated: maybe through the malfunctionings of the studio system; or maybe, if rumor is to be believed, because Louis B. Mayer wanted Vidor to have a big, big failure, and cut him down to size—to destroy him, however expensively, just as MGM had destroyed Lillian Gish and Buster Keaton and the other pioneers whose spirit might have kept Hollywood’s roots in America alive.
Preston Sturges wrote a similar story called SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and the question is worth reviving. Contemporary critics were rightly severe about the spiritual rigidities of the studio system, which at length proved suicidal; but they were often too severe on men like Vidor who had more to say about America, and said it more clearly, than (for a variety of reasons) the critical consensus was able to appreciate. If auteur theory corrected many injustices, it was driven by its own logic to minimize the influence of the studio system on individual creators, and to accept any run-of-the-mill assemblage of clichés as a crystallization of individual experience and hard-earned, first-hand, personal philosophy. More sweeping a devaluation of art would be hard to find. However inevitable Hollywood’s standardization was (given its commercial aims), the degree of its hegemony over the American cinema was a cultural disaster, and its systematic aggression against other national cinemas was an even greater one. Some directors became so used to the studio cocoon that they found it hard to think outside it. Nonetheless, a few film pundits, with a nostalgia for tyrants, have regretted the disintegration of the system.
Vidor’s forays into independent production—first at Vidor Village, then for OUR DAILY BREAD, then out to Poverty Row for RUBY GENTRY—smack more of pre- and post-Hollywood production procedures than of Hollywood’s Detroit-like assembly lines. Vidor’s attitude toward this is plain enough, both in his autobiography and in his observation that any movie project which didn’t please one of five studio chiefs was unlikely to get made. The worst period was undoubtedly the one between 1933—when the secret clauses behind the Hays Code insured the imposition of an exceptionally narrow spiritual monopoly, a kind of screen theocracy—and system’s long overdue disintegration throughout the Sixties.
Vidor’s affirmations in his last pre-war films harmonized well enough with the complacent sentimentalities to which MGM would cling long past the time when every other studio knew its day was done. After what he considered to be the mutilation of AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, Vidor quit MGM for David O. Selznick, another Mayer renegade, to make DUEL IN THE SUN, a film noir in all the Technicolors of the spectrum—and in the key-signature of blood red.