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King of Connections

King of Connections

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 24th 2018

In a conversation he had with film historian and documentary moviemaker Kevin Brownlow, the revered director King Vidor reportedly remarked: “I’m a pioneer. I’ve been in this business for years. But even when I first got to Hollywood, Henry King was going strong.” In his introduction to the 1995 Directors Guild of America Oral History Program interview compendium Henry King, Director: From Silents to ’Scope, editor Frank Thompson asserts: actor-turned-director Henry King (1886-1982, whose 132nd birthday is marked today) “was sometimes an innovator, but always foremost in his mind was the necessity to connect with his audience. King’s films are so eminently enjoyable, so beautiful and touching, that we sometimes ignore how cinematic and adventurous they are. There is no showy camerawork in King’s work, no tricky editing, no overt symbolism. There is only his formidable technique, which always supports the story, the performances, the emotion in the strongest possible way. For such a prolific artist, King [whose 47-year list of credits includes The White Sister (1923), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Jesse James (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Wilson (1944), Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Gunfighter (1950), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1956) and Carousel (1956)] was a remarkably personal filmmaker, drawing on details and emotions from his own past to bring his pictures to life.” As an example, the book’s section on the Technicolor historical epic Captain from Castile (1947), starring Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero in a grand-scale adventure centered on a member of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ 16th-century expedition that brought Mexico’s Aztec Empire under Spanish rule, focuses on his knack for spotting the best places to film and rising talents to utilize. King remembered: “Back in 1933 I was flying back to Mexico City from the Panama Canal. When we flew over a little town west of Mexico City he said, ‘Here is one of the most romantic, picturesque towns I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s called Morelia.’ I got a view you can only get from the air. From then on Morelia was imprinted on my mind as the most beautiful, the finest Spanish architecture in the Americas.” Flashing forward 13 years to a Captain from Castile discussion with Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, King said he had the perfect place in mind as a filmmaking base. “Zanuck said, ‘Henry, how in the world is it that every time a picture comes up you know exactly where you’re going to make it?’ ‘Because,’ I said, ‘I’m always looking. I have a sort of storehouse of locations in my mind when a picture comes along.’” Later on, when casting for the role of the spirited peasant girl Catana Pérez couldn’t accommodate the busy schedules of primary candidates Jennifer Jones or Linda Darnell, Zanuck made a special request of the director. King recalled: “He said there was a test of a girl who came out here from Cleveland, Ohio. She won a trip to Hollywood in a contest and of course they had a deal out here that everyone who came out got a screen test. Someone had made a test of this girl in a bathing suit. Zanuck said, ‘There’s something about this girl, she’s got something you might like.’ This girl had never spoken a word in her life in theater, stage, screen, pictures – silent, sound or anything. She hadn’t been in anything. She was studying to be a schoolteacher. I had four actors working and I took the most difficult scene in the picture to do. I worked with her for two days on this test. Then I put it together and cut it and I called Zanuck. When it was over he said, ‘This, in my estimation, is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Here’s a girl who’s never done anything in show business except walk around in a bathing suit. I don’t want to kill you, Henry, but if you can find anybody better than this…this girl is terrific.’ This was Jean Peters and that girl was a star from that picture on.” 

King also guided established stars into daring and different areas away from their established screen personas; one such actor was Gregory Peck, with whom King proudly and superbly worked six times, the last being Beloved Infidel (1959), adapted from gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s memoir of her turbulent romantic relationship with literary lion F. Scott Fitzgerald in his tragic, alcohol-soaked final years. Peck’s Fitzgerald would partner the Graham of Deborah Kerr in this scenically splendid but dramatically intense Cinemascope production. The director was sober in his remembrance of it: “Peck made very valuable contributions to the story, sure it was an Academy Award® part. But it was so realistic that I don’t think Peck got credit for the good performance he gave because it was such an obnoxious man, just a terrible man who dies in the end. I went into his dressing room and he had a bottle of vodka and he was taking a few drinks for the drunk scene. Just enough to make his tongue a little thick. And he was terrific. He was marvelous, but it was such an obnoxious character that when he died, I think everybody was glad.” Thompson completed his introduction to the King tome with these thoughts: “King was the epitome of the studio filmmaker: professional, disciplined, ready to take even the most unpromising piece of commercial fare and draw out every bit of drama and emotion and fun. It is fitting that his career stopped in 1962, at about the time that the studio system was beginning to disintegrate. Although he lived for another 20 years, and never completely gave up the idea of making one more picture, it is almost impossible to imagine him as an independent contractor. He was completely of his time and place. If we are never likely to see films like his again, it is because there are no more Henry Kings out there, and no place for them to nourish their craft if there were.” 

The Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Captain from Castile and Beloved Infidel (the latter only available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/22924/BELOVED-INFIDEL-1959/) are marvelous mementos of the remarkable career of what the Museum of Modern Art once hailed as “one of the founding fathers of American films.”