Marion Davies mugs for the camera, flirts with her sister’s boyfriend and spouts old clunkers of American folk wisdom — “Always remember — nature gives us many of our features, but she lets us pick our own teeth” — in the 1928 silent comedy “The Patsy”.
You can find it on YouTube, but in a fulsome retrospective at the Berlinale film festival for the American director King Vidor, whose career spanned nearly seven decades, from the silent age to Technicolor, it was shown in a pristine black-and-white 35mm print, with improvised piano accompaniment, that made it come alive.
“It makes all the difference in the world to see it live on the big screen with piano accompaniment,” said Angel Larriuz, a transplanted New Yorker from Spanish Harlem, attending the screening of “The Patsy”. “There’s no DVD, no Netflix that will match that.”
Watching on a big screen as Davies does her flapper dance, and her impersonations of the super-dramatic stars of the day, including Pola Negri and Lillian Gish, goes a long way to explain why the American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst set up a movie company for her — and lived with her as his mistress.
It also explains why the Berlinale’s King Vidor retrospective was so popular.
Tickets for the screenings were among the hardest for journalists to come by during the 70th Berlinale, which holds its awards ceremony on Saturday. The festival showed 37 of Vidor’s films, mostly as 35mm prints. Among them were all six of his lavishly produced Technicolor films, including “War and Peace”, with Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer, and “Solomon and Sheba”, staring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollabrigida. Almost as soon as the press ticket counter opened at 8 a.m., the press allotment for the screenings was gone.
Part of the reason may have been that while Vidor, who died in 1982, worked well into the age of sound and colour, some of his best work, such as “The Crowd” (1928), about an ordinary man’s struggle to get ahead in cut-throat New York City, and “The Big Parade” (1925), about three young men from New York who wind up serving in the same company during World War One, are silents — and silent films are mostly for aficionados. So a chance to see Vidor’s films — and this was only the third retrospective of his work in Germany — was a treat for film buffs.
Vidor, who was born in Galveston, Texas in 1894, and whose grandfather was a Hungarian emigre, grew up in the generation that included directors like John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Buster Keaton and Howard Hawks.
“He was perfectly placed as an adolescent to see how the potential of the new medium was rapidly expanding,” Rainer Rother, the head of the Berlinale’s Retrospective, wrote in a programme note. “Like many other cineastes of the same age, he decided to make film his vocation — self taught, which was the only path available at the time.”
Vidor, unlike some of his contemporaries who had made their careers in silent films and resisted change, was quick to adapt to the addition of sound, when it came along, and colour film. His first sound film, “Hallelujah” (1929), was also the first major studio film cast entirely with African-Americans. The plot, combining crime, lust and religious fervour, stirred wildly different audience reactions. “The passion and expressiveness of the all African-American cast fascinated European audiences while it was more than just the actors’ skin colour that was a provocation to the American public,” the programme brochure says.
Vidor who, with his 67-year-career, appears to have been the ultimate studio survivor, also made a film about a man who would make no compromises — Howard Roark, the architect and main character, played by Gary Cooper, in the screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. Rand, who wrote the screenplay, provided some of the clunkiest and most improbable dialogue ever filmed, so it is a huge tribute to Cooper and Patricia Neal, who plays the love of Roark’s life, that they manage to make it watchable.
But it is especially a tribute to Vidor, who within the Hollywood system made an engaging-enough film about a man who resists all compromise. One wonders what was going through his head as he directed it.
By Michael Roddy