Born at a time when the medium film was both a regular and growing presence in the world with much potential for growth and innovation, King Vidor was part of the generation who would make the motion picture industry into the powerhouse we know today. His first forays into directing began in 1913, when he was only nineteen years old. In 1918, he began writing and directing a series of short films which led him into his career in feature length films the next year. In 1922, he had his first hit with PEG O’ MY HEART that resulted in a long-term contract at Goldwyn Pictures. This contract continued when Goldwyn Pictures merged to become MGM in 1924, which led to a long career with the studio and beyond until his death in 1982.
King Vidor was a technical innovator whose films have strong themes of social justice. In 1930, he shot BILLY THE KID in widescreen 70mm which was a format that would not be popularized until years later. In addition, he was known for shooting on location at a time when backlots were the norm and embraced Technicolor in 1939, well before many other directors. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Vidor had no difficulty transitioning into talkies and his first motion picture with sound, HALLELUJAH (1929), led to his first Academy Awards nomination for Best Director. HALLELUJAH was the first big-budget film with an entirely African American cast. While a few of his films fit typical racial stereotypes of the time, Vidor was also known for films which tackled institutional racism such as by showing the brutality against Native Americans in NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1940) and the prejudice against Japanese-Americans in JAPANESE WAR BRIDE (1952). Many of his films such as THE OTHER HALF (1919), THE CROWD (1928), CYNARA (1932), OUR DAILY BREAD (1934), and RUBY GENTRY (1952) had a strong focus on classism. Prior to World War Two, his characters seem to have decidedly socialist ideas, which is surprising considering Vidor would later join the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
In this year’s Retrospective section, 35 of King Vidor’s films were shown, including several that have been restored over the past twenty years. Berlinale presented the premier of the Library of Congress restoration of THE SKY PILOT (1921). Moreover, seven of the films were given German subtitles in preparation for the Retrospective. Eleven silent films were shown and were accompanied live on the piano by Maud Nelissen and Richard Siedhoff. In compliment to the section were introductions and discussions with several film archivists and Vidor experts. As King Vidor was a director with a diverse and interesting catalogue, this year’s Retrospective offered a wonderful opportunity to experience the breadth of the long career of a motion picture legend, providing new reach to films which still have a lot of poignant points to make even about today’s problems.