Tuesday, April 19

The Directors: Charles Vidor

He will be remembered, at least by me, for directing one of those magnificent film noirs you hear so much about. The fact is that noir aficionados know that Charles Vidor directed the dazzling Gilda and he will be forever in our gratitude. He also directed some musicals, a number of comedies, a few biographies and a whole lot of early forgettable stuff. He was a major music lover, particularly of classical, and managed to make two films about composers. He had no discernible style which keeps him off the list of the more famous directors but five of his films I much enjoyed. That's good enough for me.

He was regarded by some as a director who understood the collaborative nature of movie-making and allowed interpretive expression while others found him to be temperamental, elitist and egotistical. He was regarded as handsome, debonair and intellectual. He had a great sexual appetite, some would have said quite the virile lover, and many knew that he was never faithful to any of his four wives.

Karoly Vidor was his birth name.  Born in 1900 in Budapest he developed an early passion for music.  Along with his love of classical music, he wanted to become an opera singer for most of his younger life.  He entered the Austro-Hungarian infantry during WWI as a teenager.  Following the armistice he emigrated to Germany where he got his first taste of film-making via work as an editor and assistant director.  He married an American a year after he arrived in New York in 1924.  She was the only one of his wives not associated in some way with Hollywood. The marriage would last for seven years. He worked for several years as an opera singer and saved enough money to produce a short film called The Bridge (1932).  That highly acclaimed New York project brought Vidor to the attention of Hollywood.

The first feature-length film he directed was The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Boris Karloff in the title role. The same year Vidor married the film's leading lady, Karen Morley, less than a month after his first divorce.  For the remainder of the 1930s he made 13 utterly forgettable films, most of which I have never heard of. In 1939 he signed on with Columbia Pictures where he would remain for nine years.

Vidor began his career at the studio with the murder mystery The Lady in Question (1940).  It starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford and Vidor would make a quartet of films with each of them. 

A costar of that film was Evelyn Keyes and she and the director would not only work together three times but they began an affair. She was swept off her feet... it must have been the sound of the gypsy music, the smell of goulash and the promise of canoeing on the Blue Danube. They would have a brief marriage and if ever there was a union that had no hopes of making it, here it was. Picture it.  Hollywood, California. 1944. Two habitual cheaters marry (after cheating on their spouses) and then quickly divorce because she finds out he's cheating. I mean... duh!

Vidor and Keyes' second project together, Ladies in Retirement (1941), with real-life marrieds Ida Lupino and Louis Hayward, was a decent thriller. Vidor next ventured into comedy in 1942 with Charles Laughton in The Tuttles of Tahiti. The crazy, mixed-up storyline must have sparked something with the public because the film was a crowd-pleaser. The following year he had Keyes and Ford saddle up with Randolph Scott and Claire Trevor for The Desperadoes, a good oater which I watched again over the past weekend.  Now I can't find my spurs or my riding crop.

Cover Girl (1944) was a super hit. It had the music of Jerome Kern, it got Gene Kelly away from MGM for a moment, it had the breathtaking beauty of Hayworth. It focused on a young woman who wins a contest and becomes a cover girl as the fame threatens to derail her relationship. I thought the story (and the participation of Phil Silvers, an actor-comedian who never yanked my chain) kept the film from being what it could have been. However, and I mean a big wow-however, watching that dancing of Kelly and Hayworth is something that should be on everyone's bucket list.  Of course, Vidor would have little to do with the musical segments so his participation in his own film was rather lackluster.

He and Keyes dated for the last three years of his marriage to Morley (Keyes was married as well).  Vidor and Keyes were married by the time Cover Girl finished filming and the marriage was finished by the time his next film was in the can. Just keeping the timeline lively...

He was eager to make A Song to Remember (1945), a highly fictionalized (why does Hollywood do that... don't they know it annoys me?) biography of composer Frederic Chopin.  It turned out to be Vidor's favorite film and likely one of Cornel Wilde's as well because he received his only Oscar nomination for it... and there wasn't a sword in sight.

Also in 1945 Vidor married for the fourth and last time to Doris Warner, the well-to-do daughter of one of the Warner brothers and ex-wife of director, Mervyn Leroy.  It would be Vidor's longest marriage and would produce two children.  He also had a son with Morley.

The sensation that was Gilda

And then the heaven's opened up.  I wonder if anyone thought that would be the case when they first heard of the project and read the script.  Gilda (1946) would make history for Vidor, Hayworth and Ford.  Without question it is the best work the three of them ever gave us.  Gilda, the beautiful songstress who plays with fire by being married to a jealous husband, a gambling house owner, she doesn't love and love-hating his right-hand man, a former beau, is a fascinating film on a number of levels.  But just like the lady herself, we shall just tease you here because Gilda is going to have its own shining moment one day in these very pages.  You stay tuned, y'hear?

The director and his two stars tried for more movie magic by immediately going into The Loves of Carmen (which wouldn't be released until 1948).  The story of an amoral gypsy girl who leads a young fool astray was based on the Bizet opera but had no Bizet and it was not a success. 

The bad thing about being at Columbia was working for the dreaded Harry Cohn, control-freak supreme.  Cohn's in-your-face management style was particularly difficult for actresses, but he was an equal-opportunity abuser.  He and Vidor got on well enough in the early years but particularly after the acclaim of Gilda, Vidor was feeling his oats a little. Truth be told, Cohn, mean-spirited vulgarian that he naturally was, could never have understood the continental charm of a Charles Vidor.  

Cohn had also been bedding Keyes on the side when she was still married to Vidor and afterwards. The director surely knew it, too, being in the gossipy confines of a movie studio. He publicly ignored it as best he could although it was eating at him. He began getting testier with Cohn, which was a mistake.  Cohn, in turn, kept the director idle. 

Vidor wanted out of his contract but Cohn wanted him to stay and suffer.  So Vidor sued him, claiming verbal abuse and exploitation. Both were fair enough charges but the deck was stacked against him.  Gilda character actor Steven Geray claimed Vidor behaved like a madman on the set and star Ford testified that Cohn routinely talked like he did around everyone.

Soon enough, however, Vidor was gone from Columbia and on to his 1950s films, a definite mixed bag. I was taken in by the unlikely casting of Alan Ladd and Deborah Kerr as a gunrunner and a blind cafe singer in Thunder in the East (1951).  It was not successful. Hans Christian Anderson (1952), another fictionalized biography, was successful but I always avoided Danny Kaye movies (White Christmas being the only exception). Rhapsody (1954), with Elizabeth Taylor, is one of her early 50s undistinguished films and it did nothing for Vidor's career.  

However, another of his best works and that of his two stars as well came as a result of 1955s Love Me or Leave Me.  The story of 1920s singer, Ruth Etting, and her abusive manager-husband, Marty Snyder, gave Doris Day her best screen role and James Cagney one of his best.  He would snag an Oscar nomination.  The film was incredibly popular and rightfully so.

Not as popular was The Swan (1956), Grace Kelly's penultimate film but, of course, I loved every movie she made, all 11 of them. This one stands out if for no other reason than she plays a princess. For Kelly fans, it's a preview of her life to come. Princess Alexandra struggles between two men, her tutor, whom she loves, and a stuffy prince and the cost of duty.  It was partly filmed at the glorious Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, with a lovely cast including Louis Jourdan, Alec Guinness, Jessie Royce Landis and Agnes Moorehead. 

The Joker Is Wild (1957) is still another biography, this time about singer Joe E. Lewis who had a run-in with the mob and got his vocal chords damaged.  He then turned to comedy and booze. Frank Sinatra turned in one of his most vivid performances just as some others have done in Vidor productions. A supporting cast including Jeanne Crain, Mitzi Gaynor, Eddie Albert and Beverly Garland helped elevate this one to the same standards as Love Me or Leave Me.

Oh, if Vidor could have just left it there.  But noooo.  Another control freak, David O. Selznick, was producing a remake of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1957) and he and director John Huston (another Evelyn Keyes' husband) were having a terrible go of it.  Soon Huston was off the film.  Enter Vidor.

Vidor with Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson

Vidor was a poor replacement because he was not of a mind to be leveled by another Harry Cohn experience.  The stars were Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones who were both miscast. Selznick's later films with his wife, Jones, were often train wrecks. Selznick, always hoping to match his success with Gone With the Wind, wanted the film big, big, big. And therein lies one of the problems. This is really little more than a small, dull and fairly preposterous love story that, because Selznick wanted big, is turned into a lumbering, bloated, boring behemoth.  Or as I still like to say... yucky.  (Hey, Carlo, the Italian Alps were beautiful.)

In 1959 he began work on Song Without End, a lush if a bit re-imagined tale of the life and great love of the Hungarian pianist Frank Liszt. Filmed in Austria, the thrust of it was the scandal that was caused by Lizst's affair with a married princess. Vidor should have been back in his element with still another biography... another from the world of music... and a Hungarian. What more could he want?

It's likely, however, that while in Austria he still hadn't recovered from the mess of A Farewell to Arms and his moodiness brought about heated times with his stars, Dirk Bogarde and Capucine. On June 4, 1959, Charles Vidor collapsed on the set of Song Without End and died of a heart attack.  His song had ended. He was 58 years old.

Next posting:
Movie Review

1 comment:

  1. I won't leave my position until I see GILDA's post!
    Yes Alps are beautiful but I definitely prefer the sea. Ciao