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Berlinale Bloggers 2020
The Pursuit of Happiness

Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer in “War and peace”, director King Vidor
Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer in “War and peace”, director King Vidor | Photo (detail): Park Circus/Paramount

An erstwhile king of melodrama: the retrospective on King Vidor celebrates this almost-forgotten Hollywood legend.

By Philipp Bühler

A pity that Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda cannot attend! But War and Peace (1956) on the big screen once more? Festivals are created for this, too! After a number of theme-based screenings, this year's retrospective on King Vidor (1894-1982) is once again devoted to a single filmmaker.

Celebrated in the 1920s as US cinema's most innovative director, Vidor almost fell into oblivion later on, next to greats like John Ford and Howard Hawks. Yet he was one of Hollywood's most versatile filmmakers, covering almost all genres in more than 50 films, mastering the transition from sound to silent film with ease, and always keeping in mind the social and economic problems of his time throughout all changes in style.

Between social realism and avant-garde

The best example is arguably The Crowd (1928), the story of a small employee with big ambitions in New York just before the economic crisis  – if you've never seen a silent movie, you should start here! Fantastic big-city montages combine realism and avant-garde, the depiction of simple people’s lives is still overwhelming today. The film became a formative influence on Italian neo-realism like no other.
Human striving for higher things was Vidor's main theme – often ending unhappily, as in the female role of Stella Dallas (1937) with Barbara Stanwyck as a mother fighting poverty with all her might and main.

He accompanied the Great Depression and Roosevelt's New Deal with this insistence on the American pursuit of happiness, but he also repeatedly committed major blunders such as The Fountainhead (1949), a crude visualisation of the theories of neo-liberal pioneer Ayn Rand - this film should perhaps be seen last of all.

A creator of great moments

American painter Andrew Wyeth claimed to have seen Vidor's epoch-making war film The Big Parade (1925) 180 times. With his first sound film Hallelujah (1929) he also made one of the first films with an exclusively African-American cast. But in the end, Vidor is less a creator of great films than of great moments – Bette Davis’ despicable femme fatale in Beyond the Forest (1949) simply shooting a porcupine out of a tree; or the final shootout of a pair of lovers in Duel in the Sun (1946).

Carlo Chatrian's cinephile enthusiasm is clearly evident in this choice for the retrospective. The Berlinale's new programme director says he won't put up with any belittling of King Vidor!