Friday, March 11

The Directors: Henry King

He wasn't as famous or as flashy as a lot of directors from his day.  He didn't care to be as well-known as his actors or to be bigger than his movies.  He wanted his films to stand on their own as good product but when he was done with them, he happily let the studio handle all remaining matters and he was on to his next film, his new adventure.  That is exactly what he thought of all of his films... they were great adventures.

Henry King had a longer career than most of his contemporaries.  He began in silent movies, 1915 to be exact, and made his last movie in 1962.  In 1927 he was one of 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  He guided over 100 movies with the lion's share of them at 20th Century Fox.  Most of the esteemed directors of the day worked at Fox at one time or another, but King was clearly the most prolific of all the studio's contract directors.

It would be hard to say that he had a definitive style to his work and he certainly worked in nearly all genres.  He was fond of epic, historical dramas and he turned a number of famous novels into fine films.  He had a nice feel for Americana and every foray into this type of story led to long lines at the box office.

He was of the highest moral integrity, perhaps too much so for Hollywood, but he never got self-righteous about it.  He played fair with the studio brass (Darryl Zanuck greatly admired and respected King) and was especially good with actors.  He worked with them, guided them, made suggestions, discussed their motivation but he was never intrusive and didn't pull rank unless there were behavioral issues.  The actors who loved working with him did so over and over. 

Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Jennifer Jones, Susan Hayward and Jean Peters all worked for King three times; Gregory Peck doubled that and Tyrone Power worked with the director an astonishing 11 times.  King, in fact, was greatly responsible for Power's career because he believed in the young actor and sang his praises to anyone who would listen.  King also, of course, hired Power for as many films as he felt him suitable.

Born in the plantation country of Christianburg, Virginia, in 1888, he knew early on that he had a show business bent.  It wasn't so difficult to break into the business in those days, especially if one wanted to act.  It required little more than having a lot of nerve and a willingness to be embarrassed.  But King's flair for performing enabled him to find work on the stage and in road shows.  He made his first film as an actor in 1912 and continued acting for three years.  He realized he wanted to be a director for one of the same reasons most directors want to do it... he wanted to be in charge.  To his immense credit and still saying it at the end of his career, he simply loved making movies.  

He directed a few silents.  Joining Fox in 1930, King steered top studio stars Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor in a few films.  His early sound films included the first version of State Fair (1933), The Country Doctor (1936), fictional frolic about the Dionne quintuplets, and the silly but popular Indian love story, Ramona (1936) with Loretta Young and Don Ameche as the Indians. 

King and Tyrone Power both glowed in the bright lights with Lloyd's of London (1936), about the rise of the great insurance market specialist.  Alice Faye joined Power and Ameche in 1938 for In Old Chicago, featuring, of course, that famous fire.  That trio was so wildly popular that King was brought aboard to put them through their paces again the same year in Alexander's Ragtime Band.  Bring along Ethel Merman and the snappy tunes of Irving Berlin and Fox/Zanuck got vertigo from the accolades.  King would go on to say about the lovely Faye... not only is she my favorite actress, she is a favorite person.  One of Power's best films was 1939s Jesse James.  King elicited strong performances from the actor and also Henry Fonda as brother Frank James.

With Tyrone Power on the set of Jesse James

I enjoyed Chad Hanna (1940), a carnival drama with Fonda, Linda Darnell and Dorothy Lamour, but it stands as one of the great director's lesser efforts.  King was back to huge successes with the next three films.  Power joined Betty Grable (in a rare dramatic outing) in the war drama, A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941).  Actor and director were partnered again for the superb 1942 swashbuckler, The Black Swan, costarring fiery Maureen O'Hara.  I never particularly cared for the religious drama, The Song of Bernadette (1943), but Jennifer Jones won an Oscar under King's direction, and the public flocked to it.  King received his first Oscar nomination for this film.  The nervous Jones would always be comfortable with King's handling and he, through his kindness, got some of her best performances.  Their next two pairings are among my favorite movies of all-time. 

King had a few misses and then attention was drummed up again for the historical epic Captain from Castile (1947), about Cortez's invasion of Mexico.  Power was as dashing as ever and the public took newcomer Jean Peters to its collective bosom.  Power and Orson Welles mixed it up in Prince of Foxes (1949), an adventure piece about the Borgias and written by the author of Castile.

Gregory Peck first worked with King in the war film, Twelve O'Clock High (1949).  The story of a tough-as-nails general out to whip a low-energy bomber unit into shape is one of King's best-remembered films.  Dean Jagger, a longtime favorite character actor of mine, rightly won a supporting Oscar.  The following year King and Peck would saddle up for The Gunfighter, a somber, psychological western that was probably too nihilistic for public taste at the time but is considered a minor classic today.  

In 1951 and 1952 both Peck and Susan Hayward worked for King in David and Bathsheba and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.  The former, another Biblical entry that held little interest for me beyond the two leads who always dazzled me, was perhaps more popular than Kilimanjaro.  I regard the latter as a far superior film although writer Ernest Hemingway didn't care much for it.  For me it had Africa, and the addition of Ava Gardner.

The year 1955 brought two King films I have always loved.  The first, Untamed, another African adventure, starred Power and Hayward as star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of the Boer Wars.  The second, one of my favorite 50 films, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden, became King's highest-grossing film.   A haunting title song didn't hurt.

High on a windy hill with Jennifer Jones & William Holden

King hadn't done a musical since Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1938 but in 1956 he helmed Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.  Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones were reunited from Oklahoma but only after Frank Sinatra walked off the film.  I never cared much for the story of Carousel although I did like several tunes.  The Sun Also Rises (1957), King's second adaptation of a Hemingway work, also disliked by the author and apparently much of the public, was a great favorite of mine.  I agree with critics that the leads (Power, Gardner, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer) were all a little long in the tooth but what panache they added to the story of expatriates in Europe in the 1920s.  I'm all worked up now and think I'll haul out the DVD for a weekend viewing.

The Bravados (1958) has Peck atypically cast in an avenger role out to find the men who assaulted and murdered his wife.  How unusual, too, to find Joan Collins in a western but she and everyone else handled it all quite well.  I did not think that King's next two movies were so bad, but the public and especially critics did.  The Napa Valley wine-growing opus, This Earth Is Mine (1959) with Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons and Dorothy McGuire, died on the vine.  The same year's Beloved Infidel, about the difficult romance
between novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and movie columnist Sheilah Graham was not as bad as some say, but I do agree with the criticism that Peck and Deborah Kerr were miscast.

Finally we come to King's final film and another of my favorites, Tender Is the Night (1962).  I outlined it fully in a previous piece and I'll only add here that I thought it was a fitting finale to a marvelous director's work. 

In 1956 King received a lifetime achievement award from the Director's Guild.  He was certainly a major contributor to Hollywood's Golden Era with his visually stunning, well-plotted, well-told films with some of Fox's best actors.  It's amazing how many of his films I thoroughly liked.

He was twice married and had four children.  He died of a heart during his sleep in 1982 in Los Angeles.  Henry King was 96.

Next posting:
Visiting another studio

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