The World's Worst Hero: King Vidor's Wild Oranges
One of the most important directors of the silent era, King Vidor put his stamp on American cinema with The Big Parade, produced by the new studio MGM in 1925. Formed the previous year by a merger between Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and the tiny Louis B. Mayer Productions, The Big Parade was the first important anti-war movie produced by Hollywood and also the movie that put MGM on the map. Nearly seven years had passed since the end of the war, and the frenzied propaganda that accompanied it had long since faded. It's a surprisingly grim movie for an era that one would expect to be fraught with happy endings, in which our hero - in a starmaking performance by John Gilbert - returns home from the war missing a leg. The movie was a smash hit at the box office and really paved the way for MGM to be the most successful studio in Hollywood for the next 20 years.
Wild Oranges is an early Vidor entry from 1924, the year before The Big Parade, when Goldwyn Pictures was still Goldwyn Pictures. One of the highlights of this goofy film for me, actually, was seeing Leo the Lion roaring in the old pre-MGM Goldwyn Pictures logo. TCM released this film with a new score by Vivek Maddala about a decade ago, in the halcyon days when TCM had the budget and wherewithall to commission new scores for the ultra-rare holdings in their library. Before TCM created this video version, I'm sure almost no one saw this film over the prior 80 years, so the very fact that this has been released is an amazing treat to be cherished.
It is, however, a goofy movie, despite the beautiful craftsmanship displayed here by the young Vidor. The movie itself is in amazing condition for a 94-year-old piece of work filmed on nitrate film stock, and it's just lovely to behold. The story is simple: We see a prologue in which young John Woolfolk, played by Frank Mayo, loses his bride in an awful accident, so he becomes despondent, swearing off love and companionship, choosing to spend his days sailing away on a lonely boat with his pal Paul, played by Keystone Cops veteran Ford Sterling. They come to rest on an island seemingly populated by only three people: young, beautiful Millie, played by Virginia Valli, her grandfather and the insane Nicholas, who turns out to be a homicidal maniac.
Naturally, John is attracted to Millie, but is scared of commitment because of the dead wife, plus there's the complication of the insane "part man/part child" Nicholas who is also in love with Millie.
It takes a really long time for John to rescue Millie and her grandfather from the homicidal maniac. First, Millie's scared to leave. And John is scared to bring her with him because he's scared to fall in love with her.
Eventually, somehow, John realizes, "Oh wait! I DO LOVE HER!" This convinces him finally to rescue Millie and her grandfather from the island, so he tells her that she and her grandfather should come meet him on the boat that night, and then he leaves her in the house with the homicidal maniac Nicholas and heads up to his boat. Rather than, you know, remaining there until she and her grandfather have packed to make sure the HOMICIDAL MANIAC doesn't come by and discover they're packing to leave. Nope. He just leaves for the boat. Leaves her and her grandfather IN THE HOUSE to pack by themselves while the HOMICIDAL MANIAC, who has warned them he will KILL THEM IF THEY TRY TO LEAVE, is walking around.
So, our hero is kind of dumb. This is one of those moments of a plot that make me want to laugh and cry at the same time, because it requires characters to do unbelievably stupid things.
So what do you think happens?
Nicholas spots Millie packing and kills her grandfather and then ties her up in a chair.
Meanwhile, John's on the boat wondering why they're late and heads back to the island and finds the grandfather's corpse sprawled on the floor.
Once he discovers Millie being tormented by Nicholas, he and Nicholas engage in a rather bloody and impressive fistfight, one that lasts long enough that it reminded me of the Greatest Fistfight in Cinema in John Carpenter's They Live!
Atmospheric, with a fine score and looking very impressive for such an old movie, this exists primarily as a curiosity for fans interested in witnessing the progression of King Vidor as a director. But it's still pretty entertaining, even with the stupidity of the main character.