King Vidor, American (La Boheme) – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon (1988)

 

King Vidor, American (La Boheme) – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon (1988)

  • King Vidor, American
  • Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon
  • University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
  • University of California Press, Ltd.
  • London, England
  • © 1988 by The Regents of the University of California

A congressional medal struck after John Wayne’s death has been jangling in our minds for some time. “John Wayne, American,” it reads—as if being a gutsy winner were certifiably the essence of the United States. Our title recasts the medal to honor diversity. Sure, King Vidor’s sweep honors the American dream, that sometimes ferocious religion, but it also ascends to its higher, more ambivalent, forms.

La Boheme (1926)

In a left-bank rooming house in the 1830s live aspiring playwright Rodolphe (John Gilbert) and three equally impoverished artists, who survive by ingenuity and the benevolence of Musette (Renee Adoree). Above them in a drafty loft, the seamstress Mimi (Lillian Gish) is failing to eke out the rent. Rodolphe and Mimi’s love blossoms with the spring. But her faith in his art provokes tragedy. To keep his inspiration unhindered, she toils nights to cover his editor’s rejection of his hack work. He finally catches on, vowing to abandon his play and devote himself to nursing her back to health. But she flees into the fatal anonymity of factory work. Out of his “bitter despair” comes a “great play.” On the night of his theatrical triumph, Mimi makes a heroic trek across the city, to die in her old room, near Rodolphe.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme

La Boheme has its defenders—and certainly its final reels are stunning—but it is hard to avoid a feeling that its plot sets Vidor a choice between two options—“bohemian” pretensions and Mimi’s self-sacrifice —neither of which he admires.

For copyright reasons, the film lists its source as Henri Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme, though it switches between that, Murger’s own dramatization of it, and Puccini’s opera. Banished from the film is any hint of the teasing Mimi (in the novel) or of Rodolphe’s scheming uncle, who wants a rich match for his nephew (in the play). The result is an independent Mimi, but so self-deprecating that she’s half in love with death, a creature who (despite Vidor’s claims) is close to Puccini’s. If the playing is broad, perhaps influenced, after all, by something operatic, it needs only harsher light and angles to turn expressionist in the final sequences. A bright, low-angled light outlines the hook nose of an unconcerned doctor as he pinches snuff and pronounces that Mimi won’t live through the night. Perhaps overhearing, she pulls herself up for her last, dark journey across the city, dragging herself along by chains behind horse-drawn wagons (fig. 36b), and silhouetted struggling past featureless black spaces and De Chirico—angled high walls.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

No other Vidor film has so self-conscious a painterly influence. It’s a short history of fin de siecle French art: impressionism supplanted by expressionism. The spring picnic is a dejeuner sur I’herbe, with Mimi’s nervous vivacity disrupting the tableau vivant; ballet dancers are beheaded with Degas framing from the theater box of would-be seducer Vicomte Paul, a foppish caricature out of Daumier.

If John Gilbert, in stills, looks like your archetypal ladies’ man, his portrayals ripple with tensions between a certain likeable impishness, that soft-underbellied mother’s-boy sensuality, and a half-disguised threat of something more ruthless and cunning. In La Boheme, his cute incorrigibility with his editor becomes a willful misunderstanding of Mimi’s sacrifices—reinforced by his layabout friends (“These women! I never knew where Musette got her money either”). When his jealousy leads him to rip apart her carefully sewn finery and hit her across the face, the scene gets its power less from the stain of blood she coughs up onto rough floorboards than from Lillian Gish’s projection of a private fear. Thus her escape from the roommghouse looks half like animal panic. Gilbert connects so compellingly with Renee Adoree in The Big Parade (as his few moments here with her Musette remind one) because of something mutual in their openness, in their strength as survivors. (That all three actors themselves proved just the reverse as survivors may show more than that you have to watch the dance, not the dancer. For the camera, a certain recklessness may translate as openness.)

Perhaps it’s not that Vidor distrusts self-sacrifice as such, so much as its needlessness here, and the disproportion of a life for a play (even from “the next Victor Hugo”). When Vidor holds nothing back in Stella Dallas, the persuasiveness of self-sacrifice is awesome, as, in other ways, are the death clutches of those postwar lovers in Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry. Passion vindicates all in those films. Mimi, too, has her passion, but interior and solitary anxiety is Gish’s forte. Her fears of Rodolphe are justified, and make sense of her “generous deception.” But the film comes really to life only with Mimi’s dying struggle across town, a variation on Apperson’s panicky struggle up from his sickbed and his final limping run across the French fields. Frank Borzage, with his sympathy for characters too weak for their world, might have given La Boheme a more stable hand.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

No doubt La Boheme is more coherent from the angle of Gish’s auteurism. In this, her first film for a major Hollywood studio, she supervised the script and overhauled costuming and rehearsal practices, much to the consternation of those used to the studio system. One need only place the film beside her second MGM project, The Scarlet Letter, directed by Victor Seastrom, to appreciate her control. Murger’s and Hawthorne’s novels have little in common but their completion in 1849. Murger’s is an episodic chain of light immoralities, opposite in structure and intensity to The Scarlet Letter’s unrelenting fable. But both films stand or fall by Gish’s conviction in her identical characterization: the self-sacrificial lover. The initial justifications for sacrifice in Rodolphe’s “great play” and Dimmesdale’s “good works” are forgotten next to the spectacle of Gish’s endurance, which brushes aside equally the frivolity of Murger’s Mimi and the passion of Hawthorne’s Hester. While Seastrom’s hard shadows and heavy playing are impossible to mistake for Vidor’s flat light and buoyancy here, the two films arrive at identical symbolism—embroidery as Mimi/Hester’s penance; woodland romp as their passion; caged birds as their emblems of fettered freedom.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play

When it comes to the final choice between self-sacrifice and artistic posturing, Vidor gives the edge to the latter, since it survives by resourcefulness, by literal monkey business (“What a man can’t do, a monkey can,” the artists discover in letting an organ-grinder’s monkey hold out the beggar’s cup to which they would never stoop). They survive by an ingenuity and insouciance entirely missing from Mimi’s plodding all-nighters over the needle. Posturing is, at least, a joke among the artists themselves, as when the songwriter hits up Rodolphe for money by admiring his suffering eyes. Meanwhile, the rotund wife of the rooming-house superintendent takes Mimi in hand to advise the futility of her night work.

Lillian Gish and Roy D’Arcy in a scene from La Boheme

But commonsense solutions aren’t the business of tragedy. The plot combines with the star-vehicle style to clear away obstacles to Henrik Sartov’s soft-focus showcasing of Gish’s heroism. Vidor’s jackknife speed at times gears wonderfully with Gish’s softer, fluttery kind of elaboration. Mimi, forced to resort to a municipal pawn shop for her month’s rent, visually caresses each article of clothing with a little moment of hope, a smile, a half-attempt to speak its merit; then disappointment, resolution, and full circle back to hope for the next item—all with a gentleness undaunted by the faceless pawnbroker’s brutally routine hands. Vidor sets up a tightly crowded mise-en-scene, and the chain of changing ideas in Gish’s face constitutes, in Eisenstein’s profoundest sense, a montage of emotions. Charles Affron describes Gish warming herself near Rodolphe’s stove, “turning around, exploiting the opportunity with a commitment that never suggests telegraphy or semaphore. The sign is clear, yet with nuance and timing it is broken up and reconstituted—the hands, the nose and the body ceaselessly redefine the space and the object—stove.” Affron proceeds to eleven pages of admirable analysis of how Gish’s acting and Vidor’s continuity generate a series of surprises, contrasts, modulations.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Griffith pitted Gish against outside evil—brutish fathers and unfaithful seducers. La Boheme does have a Griffithian pay-up-or-out landlord, and continues with Vicomte Paul’s seducer complications, but the two are soon insignificant; and, with the play’s wicked uncle missing, Mimi’s fears can only turn inward to a sort of abstraction—Dostoyevski and class consciousness being too far away. Gish’s careful nuances often rattle around in MGM’s typically oversized and bright spaces (a problem Sartov overcame with Seastrom through spotlighting and shadowed backgrounds). Vidor’s impatience over Mimi’s sacrifice combines with MGM’s visual denial of economic explanations to make her seem pathologically skittish. In place of Mimi running off at the first bark from Rodolphe’s editor, it’s easy to imagine a scene where Rodolphe talks him round into letting him keep his job, as we’ve seen him do before. It ought to be paradoxical that Gish’s fluttery playing fits best with Seastrom’s Nordic style, but in practice they balance out—he fashions just the right prisons for her panicky tours de force. Seastrom’s The Wind becomes her masterpiece by shuttling her fears between a melodramatic seducer and pathologically projected phantoms. The Scarlet Letter suggests to us that La Boheme makes its best sense through an Americanized viewing of this Paris: Mimi’s all-night hard work and fatal self-sacrifice is the harshest puritanical way out. His puritan streak notwithstanding, Vidor was too transcendent an optimist to look on Mimi’s death without being irritated by its masochism.

Lillian Gish as Mimi in La Boheme
King Vidor, American – Front cover

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