December 8, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
More Competition: Neilan and Vidor
<i>The Jackknife Man.</i> 1920. USA. Directed by King Vidor

The Jackknife Man. 1920. USA. Directed by King Vidor

These notes accompany the screening of More Competition: Neilan and Vidor on December 9, 10, and 11 in Theater 3.

Marshall “Mickey” Neilan (1891–1958) was an archetypal example of a squandered talent, managing to cling to a twenty-plus-year directorial career before finally giving in to the allures of alcohol. (Many of the great directors suffered from this problem, but only John Ford seemed to control it by generally restricting his benders to between-film breaks.) Blanche Sweet, who had the “honor” of being married to Neilan, and whom he directed in The Sporting Venus (1925), told me a horror story about coming home to her brand new house and finding Mickey, John Barrymore, and other pals competing to see who could spit the most tobacco onto the ceiling. The “boy wonder” was essentially unemployable for the last twenty years of his life.

Amarilly is one of several films he made with the Canadian who became “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. Both actress and director had begun under the tutelage of D. W. Griffith, and Neilan and Pickford’s best collaborations resemble some of Griffith’s more charming, but less ambitious, work. Little Mary may not have been able to plumb the depths of emotion evoked by Lillian Gish or Greta Garbo, but she was enormously popular with silent-movie audiences, and her fabled marriage with Douglas Fairbanks would set a precedent for subsequent Hollywood royal couplings, from Taylor and Burton to Jolie and Pitt. Sadly, Mickey Neilan got left in the dust. His last film job was an acting assignment in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), and by then he was little more than just that.

King Vidor (1894–1982) began his film career as a young boy, photographing hurricanes in his native Galveston. He went to Hollywood in 1919 to become a director of several cheap independent films, of which The Jackknife Man is the most notable. From 1925 on, Vidor was one of America’s leading directors, and we will revisit his work several times in this series. As early as The Jackknife Man, it is evident that Vidor had a special empathy that he was able to convey through images. He also had an experimental streak that makes films like The Big Parade, Hallelujah, Street Scene, Our Daily Bread, and several of his later quasi-Gothic romances seem almost avant-garde.

The Jackknife Man provided me with one of those privileged moments that a film archivist hopes for but rarely experiences. The film is about a young waif (Bobby Kelso) who is adopted by an old “primitive” artist (Fred Turner). I had been impressed and deeply moved by the film when the Museum acquired it around the time of our 1972 King Vidor retrospective (my first full-scale curatorial venture). One day, I got a phone call from a gentleman who inquired as to whether we had The Jackknife Man and if he could see it. His name was Bobby Kelso. So, some sixty years later, I was able to show him the film he had made as a boy. Vidor and Charles Chaplin eventually became close friends. Whether Chaplin had seen Vidor’s film before he made The Kid with Jackie Coogan I don’t know, but I would like to think it is a possibility.