Legendary filmmaker King Vidor, who brilliantly made the transition from silent movies to “talkies” in the late 1920s, was only six years old when he survived the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The Great Hurricane of 1900, which nearly wiped out his hometown of Galveston and claimed an estimated 8,000 lives, left Vidor with one moment “that influenced me throughout my life,” he said in 1976.
As his family found shaky refuge in the house of a friend, he heard powerful singing coming from another room, which was packed with about 30 African-American survivors. “There was segregation even in those conditions,” Vidor recalled. “But facing death as close as you could face it, they were singing spirituals.”
Inner strength and personal expressiveness in the midst of conflict, both physical and social, was a theme that ran through many of Vidor’s films, from 1925’s The Great Parade through Our Daily Bread (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), Northwest Passage (1940), Duel In the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949), Ruby Gentry (1952) and War and Peace (1956). As testament to the human spirit, Vidor’s protagonists almost always emerged stronger from the struggle.
The website of the Directors Guild of America, a union he co-founded in 1936 and served as its first president, calls Vidor “a poet of American opportunity and achievement.”
Because of DGA guidelines that give sole credit to the hired director, Vidor received no official acknowledgement for his most-watched work- the black and white scenes of The Wizard of Oz (1939). While Victor Fleming was called away to direct Gone With the Wind, Vidor shot Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” from angles that underlined the sense of yearning.
“We’re not born heroes,” he said in a 1970 retrospective by film critic Richard Schickel. “Destiny is determined by events out of our control.” That his focus was on ordinary people doing extraordinary things was seen in The Great Parade, the first war movie that was about the G.I.s, not the generals or presidents. The highest-grossing film of the silent era, Parade established MGM as a major studio. The Crowd, about seeking identity in the rat race, earned Vidor an Oscar nomination in 1929, the first year the awards were given.
His next film would fulfill “a secret hope,” as he wrote in his 1953 autobiography A Tree Is a Tree. For several years Vidor dreamed of making a motion picture about the African-American experience, with an all-Black cast. This had never before been done in Hollywood, whose biggest musical attraction in the late ‘20s was Al Jolson singing in blackface.
“The environment of my youth in my father’s East Texas sawmill towns had left many indelible memories” he wrote of the Black men and women employed by his father, Charles Shelton Vidor, a prosperous lumberman in the Pineywoods of Texas and Louisiana.
“The sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives,” wrote Vidor, who had attended several river baptisms as a boy. He’d also poked his head inside the raucous barrelhouses built in remote logging camps to keep the workers entertained. The dueling themes of sin and salvation- blues and spirituals- promised the dramatic content Vidor was always looking for in his films.
Vidor’s idea for an all-Black film had previously been shot down due to limited screening opportunities during the era of Jim Crow racism. But with sound coming to movies in 1927, Vidor re-pitched his pet project as a musical that would feature the gospel, jazz and blues popular at the time. After he offered to forgo his hefty $100,000 fee until the movie earned a profit, King Vidor received studio approval and made Hallelujah in 1929.
The advent of sound changed filmmaking, with more talking, less action. Movie cameras had to be encased in wooden boxes so the microphones wouldn’t pick up their whirring sound. Therefore, they didn’t move.
But because there were no mobile sound units available, Vidor filmed Hallelujah on location in Arkansas and Memphis without sound, dubbing in the dialogue and music later. Although the post-production synchronization was a nightmare, “we proved that talking pictures could remain moving pictures,” Vidor said in 1976.
It turned out the studio had been right about limited distribution, however. Shown in only one theater in the south, Hallelujah lost money, which meant Vidor directed it for free.
But the film earned Vidor another Oscar nomination for best director, and today Hallelujah is regarded as a landmark in cinema.
Quite ironic that the first Hollywood movie to offer a realistic, sympathetic depiction of life as an African-American in the 1920s was written and directed by a Texan whose father is the namesake of the notorious bedroom community that has been linked to the Ku Klux Klan. The town of Vidor (rhymes with “cider,” unlike the director’s “VEE-dor” pronunciation) was named after its main employer around 1907.
C.S. Vidor had hoped his only son, named after his wife’s brother, would take over his lumber business in due time. Instead, C.S. sold his assets in 1920 and moved to Hollywood to help build the Vidor Village studio.
“My father had tried to arouse in me an interest in engineering,” Vidor wrote in his autobiography, explaining that the Miller-Vidor lumber company had bought a huge forest in the Dominican Republic but had no way to get the valuable hardwood to port. “He was hoping that I would grow up and be the man who would build the railroad.”
Instead, he became a leader in the generation that built Hollywood. Unlike the majority of his early filmmaking peers, Vidor had no stage nor literary background. He told his stories with a camera.
He was born in 1894, the year the public first paid money to see a motion picture in the U.S., and Vidor grew up right alongside this new form of art and entertainment.
As a 15-year-old, he worked as a ticket-taker at Galveston’s first nickelodeon, the Globe Theater, which sounds grand, but it was actually the back of a music store on Market Street where Vidor had bought his first guitar. When the projectionist went on break, young Vidor took over the cramped booth, hypnotized by the flickering of light.
He became obsessed with finding a camera to make his own movies when his friend Roy Clough (who would later become Galveston mayor) built one from cigar boxes and old projector parts. It was crude, “But by God it worked!” Vidor exclaimed.
After the catastrophic 1900 hurricane, Galveston built a 16-foot high seawall along the island’s entire eastern and southern shorelines. The only structures unprotected were three large public bathhouses level to the top of the seawall. When another September hurricane started its rampage in 1909, Vidor and Clough aimed their camera at one of the bathhouses and captured the moment when the waves lifted the building from its pilings and crashed it down on the brick street. The film was shown in Texas movie theaters as a newsreel.
“School classes became progressively less interesting, and I was impatient to get started on this new profession,” he wrote in A Tree is a Tree, (whose title comes from a cost-conscious producer nixing the need to film at faraway locations.) Vidor dropped out of high school to become the Texas stringer for the Mutual Weekly newsreel company in New York City, earning sixty cents per foot for all usable film.
His first assignment was to document the longest march of mass U.S. troops ever- 11,000 soldiers- from Galveston to Houston in 1912, during the Mexican Revolution. Vidor got an impressive shot of the striding column of men from the top of a cotton warehouse, a composition repeated to great effect in The Great Parade.
Soon after starting his first film company Hotex in Houston in 1915, Vidor fell in love with Florence Arto, a local beauty with aspirations of movie stardom. They married when he was 21 and she 19 and set off for Hollywood, using $85 he earned on a documentary for a sugar-refining company as down payment on a Model T Ford.
Florence became a silent film star before Vidor directed his first feature A Turn in the Road (1919), a box office hit whose scenario of spiritual quest was based on tenets of his Christian Science upbringing. For the next 40 years until his final feature Solomon and Sheba in 1959, Vidor directed epics, comedies, musicals, message films and dramas with equal proficiency, letting the material dictate the style.
Though Texas can boast such great directors as Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer), Terrence Malick (Tree of Life), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids) and Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Vidor has to be considered the king of Texas filmmakers for his historical significance and wide range of subjects.
Nominated five times as best director, Vidor never won a competitive Oscar, though he received an honorary Academy Award in 1979. The Hollywood icon passed away three years later at age 88.
“I am a camera,” he said in 1970. “I look at the world.” And he never forgot the songs of inner strength that buoyed the spirits of a six-year-old boy in the darkness of devastation.