The following essay is from Peter von Bagh’s book Cinefilia (2013). Drawing on his writings in Filmihullu (1996) and sketches for the catalogue of San Sebastian Film Festival (2007), it was entirely rewritten by von Bagh (1943–2014) for Cinefilia. It is presented here for the first time in English, translated and edited by Antti Alanen, for the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to Henry King at Il Cinema Ritrovato, June 22–30, 2019.
"When direction shows, it's bad."
Would I be able to sketch an overview of the film career of Henry King (1886–1982), which started already when D. W. Griffith’s was directing The Birth of a Nation (1915) and ended around the time when John Ford finished The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)? In the following I will try to define certain characteristics of Henry King’s signature, although his films are quite different from one another. What might be in common, for example, between the optimism of Tol’able David (1921), the bravado of Stanley and Livingstone (1939), and the disillusioned sangfroid of Twelve O’Clock High (1949)?
I have also been intrigued by works like The White Sister (1923), The Woman Disputed (1928), State Fair (1933), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Jesse James (1939), The Gunfighter (1953), and The Bravados (1958). In public awareness their director has languished far from his rightful place of honor with the great masters. Such an undervaluation is undoubtedly based on the sheer amount of King’s output. When the full terrain is difficult to fathom, pearls remain buried. Many may have seen King’s weakest efforts, conveyor belt products, routine assignments, and even bottom-of-the-barrel material. Towards the end of his career King toiled with CinemaScope trivia, of which one example, This Earth Is Mine (1958), cast a long shadow of doubt on Henry King in the mind of a certain young viewer who would later grow into the writer of the present text.
THEMES FOR A LIFETIME
Already during the early stages of his career King evolved into a most tender visionary of American life. In Tol’able David the happiness, the moral purpose, and the patriotism of a family were crystallized for the first time as a major theme. A deeply felt American ethos helped King discover ever new approaches to the same theme, culminating later in the beautiful, poetically multidimensional Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), one of the films on which a well-known and beloved title song casts a blessing.
Another lifelong theme for King was the First World War. For him it was a subject as central as the Second World War was for John Ford. (Common to both masters was that their method in their best works was indirect, while the full impact of the end result was all the more intense). No doubt certain war scenes in The Woman Disputed and She Goes to War (1929) rival the mastery of Rex Ingram and King Vidor in their skillfulness. Even more essentially we can sense the wounds of war in King’s films whose subjects ostensibly have nothing to do with war.
While we are trying to track the essence of Henry King’s style we need to ask what the connection is between his lushest dream imagery and the somber visions of disappointment after both wars. Mere heroism was never sufficient to become the driving force in King’s films. Neither was optimism, although even in King’s gloomiest images a ray of hope would always survive. But thinking about the silent film A Woman Disputed along with Alexander’s Ragtime Band from the year 1938, Twelve O’Clock High from 1949 and The Sun Also Rises from the late 1950s I cannot fail to notice a hidden bridge: in each narrative there are flashbacks, memories of past experiences, the most resonant of which reverberate with war. Meanwhile, King’s magnificent talent for conveying character emphasizes ensemble images and the continuity of life.
The director’s touch conveys both an intimate, deeply internalized understanding of the individual and a sense of group dynamics, discipline and spirit of camaraderie. Thus equipped, King developed an elevated style—we sense it in his way of recording the deepest traces which beauty, doubt, fear, disappointment, and shipwrecked illusions have imprinted on humanity.
All in all King’s œuvre was exceptionally bountiful even on a Hollywood scale. Quantity tended to replace quality especially at the beginning and end of his career. Early routine works were dominated by a touchingly naïve sense of American happiness: illusions, but also wishes fulfilled. In the last works we find aching testimonies of human frailty, failure and the proximity of death. Looking closer at the clusters of failed movies we can perceive interconnected syntheses and thematic arches, not so much between works but between images that enter into dialogue even when there are as many as six quickly manufactured films in between. Often in the background of such connections one can detect the director’s affinity for subjects important to him.
Between the doldrums of the beginning and end was the life itself: in his best films King orchestrated big pictures and interactions between individuals and communities as naturally as breathing. King electrified the screen with expansive overall views: this is how a society functions, this is how the future is made. He showed builders, inventors, and slick businessmen, until at the end, in a final twist of drama, promises elevated to ecstatic heights began to fall apart. There remained a sense of nothingness, as if life had failed. It was as if King in his optimistic works had tried to distance himself from the pessimism reigning after World War I, the Weltanschauung of the “lost generation,” and nevertheless at the end of his career returned to the gloomy conclusions of contemporary critics in the 1920s.
TYRONE POWER: THE FORCE OF PRESENCE
Henry King’s loyalty to certain actors helps understand the basis of his creativity. Long collaborations are naturally explained by studio obligations. The “house director” was expected to direct actors belonging to the company stable. King worked three times with Will Rogers, five times with Richard Barthelmess, three times with Susan Hayward, no less than eleven times with Tyrone Power and six times with Gregory Peck. One might suspect that such an overdose would have yielded routine performances, but regarding quality it was the other way round. Lengthy collaborations were primed to an ever greater creative pitch and turned out to be mutually rewarding. We may remember for instance the poignant depth Tyrone Power’s presence brings to The Sun Also Rises (1957) and the ethical and charismatic radiance of Gregory Peck in The Bravados.
Tyrone Power certainly contributed to the singular focus which we can identify in Henry King’s style. Power is supposedly almost the definition of the bland, indifferent Hollywood star: beautiful to look at, devoid of depth, and so on. True enough, the rare Power performances with which he garnered particular attention did not emerge under King’s direction. Instead, the most notable were two films directed by Edmund Goulding: The Razor’s Edge (1946) and Nightmare Alley (1947). Beside the most successful Power vehicles directed by King one could also mention John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955) and George Sidney’s The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), two underrated films which are nevertheless masterpieces.
Thinking about canonized performances of iconic historical figures of the 1930s I feel considerable respect towards the antics of Charles Laughton, whom I value more highly than Paul Muni, not to speak of Fredric March. However, I tend to think, with a tinge of provocation, that none of them reaches the level of Tyrone Power, who becomes a particularly moving guide in King’s historical films. Granted that Power is an incarnation of a hollow man or even the hollow man himself, an accurate interpreter of modern alienation because his own identity is entirely invisible. Yet he is an insider in the mystery of time. He takes us on a walk through lost time and things past, for instance in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which proceeds in several layers of time, and in an even more significant work as well, Jesse James. Naturally Henry Fonda was excellent, too, in Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940), but the electricity emanating from him was somewhat too obviously constructed in comparison with Power, who possessed the quality characteristic of film stars to project essence through mere presence. Under King’s direction Power radiates an alternating current in the friction between reality and Brechtian distanciation.
It was important for King to find partners who had a “coldly objective” attitude toward their roles. In an interview conducted by Pierre Guinle in 1978 for L’Écran, Henry King summed up his motto as follows: “Professionalism means the art of delivering the text or giving form to a scene without getting moved at all by the text or the scene.”
King’s final confrontation with Tyrone Power takes place in The Sun Also Rises. Two epicenters overlap: on one hand, we follow an account of the “lost generation” dramatized in Hemingway’s novel; on the other hand we witness the spectacle of “Hollywood lost” in the presence of two former romantic idols and swashbuckling heroes now seen as elderly and impotent (Tyrone Power) and as a physically wrecked victim of alcohol (Errol Flynn). For the last time these bright stars shone as if over a Hollywood cemetery. Ava Gardner’s charisma is evident in each take, but even hers appears here for the last time in its full glory—revered, enchanting.
It was the heyday of the widescreen. One believed in its novelty value even more firmly than in the attraction of the stars. The story also remained secondary though it had been borrowed from Hemingway, albeit with Hollywood lackadaisicalness. Somehow it became more important to focus on the blocking of stars lingering in elongated CinemaScope all over the globe, on sets imitating bistros in Paris or Pamplona in Spain.
And once again this film also returns to the theme of the war. The characters have come to know each other because of the war, and without the war the connection would be entirely different. In their scenes together they both belong and don’t belong with each other, as when the impotent Tyrone Power meets the sex goddess. We need evidence, as much as André Bazin needed the alligator and the boy to exist in the same shot in Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948). Cutting into two separate shots of the alligator and the boy would have destroyed the evidence. Under King’s direction sufficient evidence materializes in Tyrone Power’s mere presence. He had been at the peak of stardom for over two decades. It shows. He was to die the next year.
WAR’S SUBTLE TRACES
Gregory Peck was King’s other favorite star. Their first collaboration, Twelve O’Clock High, has been considered King’s chef-d’œuvre. Peck was cast here in the most enduring role of his life as an upright general whose ethics and authority are indisputable. The film focuses on the circumstances in which young U.S. soldiers participated in the most bitter operation of Britain’s Royal Air Force: their exhausting mission to bomb continental Europe’s cities with industrial efficiency. Peck’s character as the general is not for a moment unequivocal. A martinet at first, he is finally derailed from his invincible superiority into an almost autistic fragility from which he recovers.
We follow his internal struggle from the viewpoint of an eyewitness: the narrative is carried by memories of the general’s adjutant that report but do not explain the meaning of events. Opposite poles of the struggle are the individual and the community, freedom and discipline, motivation and necessity, hope and fear, courage and a shaky mental sanity. The airfield is a microcosm, a closed space like a chessboard in which these elements clash with one another. The analytical approach of the film is almost unique: the only comparison that springs to my mind is Friedrich Ermler’s seldom screened war film The Great Turning Point (1945), where the events are located almost exclusively in the headquarters of war operations.
The introduction of Twelve O’Clock High is simply one of the noblest sequences in the history of the cinema. Dean Jagger, the former adjutant of the wartime air base, now a tourist in London, buys a hat for himself and discovers in an antique shop a rustic Toby Jug that evokes memories leading back to the war that had ended four years ago. There are echoes in the sequence of William Wyler’s classic film The Best Years of Our Lives, particularly the scene in which the veteran returning from the war (Dana Andrews) sits down in an empty airplane. Airfield barracks had acquired a mythical stature in two movies, Wyler’s documentary Memphis Belle (1944) and Anthony Asquith’s fictional The Way to the Stars (1945). Although nothing happens in the opening sequence of Twelve O’Clock High, it has everything: the empty airfield, the elements of air and wind, the invisible presence of memories, the dream of camaraderie and a sense of loss. Another gloomy variation of King’s key films celebrating “the American way.”
Twelve O’Clock High concretely addresses the situation in which the Allied air forces launched the first daylight precision bombings in Europe. The justification for the bombings is still a sensitive matter, not least for Englishmen and Americans themselves. The choices and actions of individuals often remain invisible when they are explained as a necessity dictated by collective duty. We see through the walls of that necessity into the intimate heart of the war when it is revealed that in war everyone is ultimately a loser.
Twelve O’Clock High completes a loose “trilogy” of loss and disillusionment following John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) and William Wellman’s The Story of G. I. Joe (1945). Instead of one-dimensional heroism the military characters in these films displayed vulnerability. Ford’s stars were John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, Wellman’s protagonist the young Robert Mitchum. Gregory Peck was at the beginning of his career here, and his stardom was still seeking its shape when he was offered this challenge. Peck liberated himself from the theatrical gestures usually expected in war movies. In this film directed by King he was not yet hampered by the heavy-handedness we detect in many later roles.
Twelve O’Clock High still belongs to the “semi-documentary” genre which flourished soon after the Second World War. At its best that combined the most valuable truths of both fiction and documentary. One of these films was John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1945). It deals with psychiatric therapy methods such as hypnosis applied in American war hospitals at the time. Few movies have as accurately displayed the impact of war on the human mind: no wonder that screenings were banned for 35 years. Common to King’s fiction and Huston’s documentary is the horror of a total mental breakdown—the dread of empty space, a fall into a void without bottom or edges.
THE LEGACY OF THE SILENTS
King’s early silent films prove that the personal quality of the director matured only gradually. In the beginning it was hardly evident at all; little by little the signs began to appear.
In King’s silent films the scarcity of events—that is, the abundance of eventlessness—is impressive. It anticipates subtleties of the slow narrative that evolved into a hallmark of the director. In some of his very first films, such as Vengeance of the Dead (1917), Where the West Begins (1919) and Six Feet Four (1919), King himself starred. A gentle and almost invisible actor with a strange light in his blue eyes intimating peace of mind and the silent intensity of his mental range.
Another prophetic trait in his silent films is King’s sensitive way of portraying illusions—the relationship between imagination and reality—for instance in the classic melodrama Stella Dallas (1925). There a subject all too familiar for Americans was treated more maturely and courageously than in King Vidor’s sound remake of the year 1937.
Prophetic too was the fact that certain silent films by King are structured like multi-layered jigsaw puzzles. Moreover they demonstrate an assured approach to many genres. The most obvious are the western and the melodrama whose the synthesis would emerge in the glorious spiritual phenomenon known as “Americana,” a reverent genre dedicated to the American dream.
The more traditional and well-worn the genres, the more King seemed to value them. He dramatized atavistic American stories about shame, happiness and success. King dissected the motives of a community as if on a surgeon’s operating table. Despite his understated presentation this can become intolerable to watch because the dominant motives shaping American culture are so mercilessly laid bare.
Even in King’s silent films we discover a familiar evolution: from the ethereal and optimistic he matured towards the grim and pessimistic. The war theme also dominated the end of King’s silent period. The Woman Disputed belongs to the absolute masterpieces of the 1920s. Here King captured two famous actors in their prime: Gilbert Roland and especially Norma Talmadge—more beautiful than ever, illuminated by an inner purity that is almost unbelievable.
The events take place in Lemberg, a city in Austria-Hungary near the Russian border, where war and personal animosity reach a chaotic boiling point. The narration is based on the aesthetic of the long take. Remarkably long takes, bordering on the improbable, enable King to render special depths of emotion. Held like a deep breath, these long takes help access intimate secrets of melodrama which sound cinema was only rarely able to recapture.
The main character interpreted by Norma Talmadge, Mary Ann Wagner, is a sister to Maupassant’s “Boule de suif”: Caught in a conflict between moral duty and destiny she grows into martyrdom and sainthood. Based on religious imagery, her dilemma inspires King’s passion to burn at full blaze. Although Mary Ann sells herself we do not feel that her soul is tainted. King lifts Talmadge’s character to sublime grandeur: religiosity, violence, eroticism and sensuality blend in his imagery. This union of truth and beauty carried forward over the years, and we can still discover its reflections in King’s later films, at their most sensual in The Song of Bernadette (1943) and at their most analytical in the western The Bravados (1958). King staged his most erotic images in the church—without the slightest touch of blasphemy.
Another film stemming from the same motifs was She Goes to War (1929). It was produced both as a silent and as a post-synchronized version boosted with sound effects, that managed to retain “the golden secret” of the silent film. According to the ad copy for She Goes to War: “You will find heartache and humor, courage and cowardice, horrid death and high romance, all blended together in the greatest picture of the World War 1914–1918.” It’s all about farewells, fanfares, crosses at the cemetery, men in the mud, indescribable horror. However, rather than caricature or irony the film conveys a message of hope, its visual style cut almost to the principles of the illustrated Bible, yet without anything static. The dramaturgy is free-flowing in structure like rhapsody with small oneiric fragments that allow a glimpse of better days.
It is not unheard-of that for certain directors the reputation of a single movie obscures everything else. King’s fatal tour de force was Tol’able David about which the Russian Vsevolod Pudovkin wrote famous sentences. And a masterpiece Tol’able David is, a foundation work appearing like a superimposition in all of King’s subsequent films that delve deep into the American experience, including among others State Fair and Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.
In Tol’able David landscapes bathe in natural light. The narrative conveys the heartbeat of vintage melodrama: a centuries old tradition finds form as pure cinema. The camera captures characters as sensitively as the landscapes in which these people were born.
Everything is charged with great, mysterious or ominous significance, when the drama of principles deepens and the camera sweeps into big close-ups in which the feeling of community, yearning and a fear of loss find deep expression. The core of the film staged by the director on his home turf is a vanishing world, the destruction of everything an ordinary American family loves most.
The plot is simple: hooligans beat the oldest son of a family to the point of becoming permanently invalided, and it is the younger son’s (Richard Barthelmess) duty to strike back. This peace-loving young man getting caught in a spiral of vengeance builds into a heart-rending story. Its magnet is the shadow of cowardice threatening to overwhelm him. Brotherly love is also an important emotional force, set up already at the beginning of the movie. David sits in the middle of a wide landscape there as if in an unfathomable primordial state. Visions fill his imagination: how he would drive his older brother’s carriage and conquer the girl of his dreams. At the same time, in a comic cut, as so often in Kingian melodrama following the highways of the heart, the fence breaks and the little brother falls back into the lot of an awkward slacker that he is never expected to grow out of.
The family itself is also gloriously drawn: the mutual tenderness in dimensions beyond words, their pride when they attempt to hide their pain from each other, trying to keep smiling in adversity. King has caught in a fantastic way the natural dignity and modesty of people in the rural countryside. All this is conveyed with passion. The performance of Barthelmess is great because he does not imitate any psychological formulae. This shows for instance in a scene where he dances alone outdoors. It conveys an idea of autonomy and independence devoid of any crookedness that the myth of American success often involves.
King’s Italian films are a compact category of their own. In two masterpieces of the mid-1920s, The White Sister and Romola (1926), King captures the ethereal sphere and the breath of the Mediterranean air and culture with a sensitivity that one would experience again in Roberto Rossellini’s miraculous Journey to Italy (1954).
The White Sister tells about two young people who are as if made for each other, though the grim circumstances of war have put a wedge between them. Human goodness is put to the test in melodramatic turns. The most engaging feature of the film is the account of the surroundings. Enchantment is evident in the natural quality of the light and space, the luminous gardens and the presence of the sea.
The White Sister is a special edition of Lillian Gish whose star image was complemented after D. W. Griffith also by Victor Sjöström and King Vidor. In The White Sister we remember Gish’s exalted reaction when she learns that her beloved has died. In her mad scene the intensity is in a sphere of its own even in the context of the star’s unforgettable œuvre. These scene
s, to quote the screenplay, take place on a "still and sultry night when nature seemed to hold its breath." The magnificent sequence of the ride of the man returning from war, in clouds of dust, and Lillian Gish running, nothing else, is an image as simple as this is charged with atavistic intensity. Nor are there any false moves in what follows, the surprising turn in which Gish becomes a nun. In King’s films religiosity is in the very key of the narrative.
King’s second Italian film, Romola, is a tough study of Savonarola and the terror, the Medicis and the power of money, wheeling and dealing, wretched ideals set yet again against the beauty of the landscape and the spiritual presence of individuals who choose to be different. Romola (Lillian Gish again) is a naïve young woman who lives by the books. Out of inexperience she lands with a crooked husband, and life’s cruel irony bares its claws.
We follow the dreary everyday of a hollow marriage reduced to a power struggle. People act more superficially than they are, as if their lives had transformed into pure fiction. Like in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) this home is also a cemetery of dead happiness.
THE FOX YEARS
Henry King’s name is seldom mentioned among the masters whose positions are fixed on the world map of the cinema like continents: John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan, et cetera. We have been accustomed to see King as a typical contract worker for 20th Century Fox and that, indeed, is what he was. Some of the most esteemed auteurs such as Frank Capra (Columbia) and John Ford (Fox) were too edgy and willful to have a company brand stuck on them. Mitchell Leisen, who worked for Paramount, and Clarence Brown, the MGM workhorse, had careers similar toKing’s. All three have been less researched than they deserve. As artists they have been marginalized because they were viewed as operators fulfilling orders of producers, executors without personality.
Henry King’s collaboration with Fox (which merged into 20th Century Fox in 1935) started in 1930 and continued for 32 years. In charge of production at 20th Century Fox was the “mogul” Darryl F. Zanuck. He favored screenwriters but treated directors like workhorses. Though King and Zanuck were very different personalities, the conflict was productive and the collaboration proved fruitful.
Clive Denton has highlighted the irony of this disparity: “… that the man sometimes called ‘Zanuck’s favourite house director’ should have such a differently set metronome by his side”—a reference to the slow, meditative rhythms of King versus the tight, racing tempos of Zanuck.
A personal favorite of mine from those years is Alexander’s Ragtime Band, an interesting variation of the traditional “biopic” from the year 1938. Pretending to follow the life of Irving Berlin, the featherlight narrative is seasoned with ingenious breaks in the routine. The approach of this film compares well with other Fox biopics which reduced all great men into one.
Portraying character King knew how to balance myth and fact, celebrity and ordinariness. Tyrone Power rose to the challenge in a role that transcended the limits of his regular star persona. Cast as a moral sidekick to Power’s volatile opportunism was another Fox contract actor, Don Ameche, a star that posterity has almost passed by who really deserves rehabilitation. Ameche is remembered vividly in Henry Hathaway’s Wing and a Prayer (1944) as well as in the leading role in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943).
While King’s best silent movies have sometimes been called “musicals without music,” Alexander’s Ragtime Band with its overflow of no less than 30 music numbers escalates into a veritable frolic and, perhaps for the first time, an “integrated musical” matched only years later by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The dialogue, pantomime, and dancing gestures are electrified by catchy hit tunes.
To be sure, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and its predecessor, In Old Chicago (1938), are examples of the most ordinary Fox fare of the period. The screenplay, direction, performances and art direction meet the expectations of the norm. Even the story with its trite romances and backstage scenes was in its lack of imagination like ripped from a screenwriter’s manual. Nevertheless, even these two works reflect with rare precision the hope instilled in the American soul and the tragedy stemming from the emptiness of that promise.
Walter Copperidge has characterized King as “the teller of the tale” with a contemplative, unsentimental, balanced, and calmly observant attitude. These very characteristics helped King work with merit in limits set by the studio. To speak with Copperidge: “The first duty of the director is to efface himself so that the story is not encumbered by ostentatious or attention-getting narrative mannerisms.”
King’s undisputed masterpiece Jesse James premiered in 1939, perhaps the best film year of all times. One of the deepest pleasures is to sense how it resonates in the historical moment with a potent critical stance against capitalism as a response to the agony of the Depression years. Even more touching is the synchrony with its sister film, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), produced at the same studio. Together these two works offer an illuminating example of studios functioning at their best when there is an innovative and inspiring connection between creative teams and producers.
The screenplay of Jesse James follows the arc of traditional tragedy. The narrative is deepened by lyrically compact observations. The aggressively bright Technicolor palette contrasts with the refined hues typical for King. As a colorist one might characterize King as a privileged painter of border zones. In his own words “the director paints with light.” Jesse James veritably bathes in the green of the landscape, as if breathing pure air by the riverside.
King’s reputation as a routine director may be partially deserved; probably the bulk of his 1930s assignments was pure routine. A robust professionalism is evident in everything King did, but we seldom feel enthusiasm. That said, Jesse James is pure passion and simultaneously—this is worth remembering—a remake of a very familiar tale. After all, we cannot reproach Henry King for remaking Hollywood romances, as little as we can reproach Chekhov for lingering over trivial details or Hemingway for using simple sentences. King’s films are staggering, precisely because there is nothing original in them. As Jacques Lourcelles puts it, they are beautiful expressions of “Americana en profondeur.” They follow the plain logic of a popular song. In their utter ordinariness they pause in quiet reflection to face life’s fundamental truths.