Sunday, 20 September 2015

Bitter sweet… Wild Oranges (1924)

What was King Vidor's agenda? Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon make much of the director’s Christian Science background in their book King Vidor, American; his work the result of a constant struggle between the films he wanted to make and the need to produce popular product.

Wild Oranges (1924), like The Sky Pilot (1922) may well be one of those films were he smuggled in more meaning than was apparent to his paymasters at Goldwyn Pictures – something which pointed the way to more philosophical fare such as The Big Parade and, especially, The Crowd.

Frank Mayo
It tells of one man’s reaction to chance and the decisions he wrestles with in the seductive heat of South Georgia, the old South, shrouded in cloying strands of over-growth, animalistic passion and primal fears.

The music of chance...
The story begins with what now might be described as a Paul Auster moment: a scrap of newspaper is blowing innocuously across a dirt road, what’s that got to do with the price of oranges the audience asks until the horses pulling a passing trap are distracted and bolt pulling their passengers along a break-neck speed… and so it proves as the vehicle spins round a corner sending its passenger to her death on the ground.

Her husband rushes top his wife’s aid but it’s too late: she is gone… just like that leaving a hole in her husband’s heart he never expects to fill again.

Two men and a boat
Three years pass and the man, John Woolfolk (Frank Mayo) has been sailing the World with only his right hand man Paul Halvard (Ford Sterling) for company. He never feels compelled to set down roots and travels on in the hope of never meeting Love again.

On to a Georgian shoreline well off the beaten track and with a tricky approach over fast moving shallow waters: the perfect place to get lost and the perfect place to run aground…

So far so sad but what awaits is something else… An old man (Nigel De Brulier), looks on in rising panic, a victim of congenital anxiety but still shell-shocked by the civil war fought two generations before.

The locals spy the unwanted visitors
A disheveled giant of  a man, Iscah Nicholas (Charles A. Post) also regards the boat in the harbour with fear – his mind even more clouded than the old man’s and with a darker secret that gives him more rational basis for concern.

From the boat, John spies a woman swimming and it turns out not to be Delores del Rio taking an early dip but Virginia Valli… John looks on through binoculars and no doubt reminds himself of his vow to keep on moving.

Vidor was an advocate of the filming of wild swimming
But the boat needs water and John ventures to land where he is captivated by the scent of oleanders and orange blossoms. He walks through the fruit trees encroaching all-round the once grand old house and stops to try some of the fruit… “Wild oranges – at first surprisingly bitter, but after a moment pungent and zestful with a never-to-be-forgotten flavour.”

He meets Millie (Virginia Valli) – the old man of the house’s granddaughter – who whilst she has inherited his timidity still has a clear and open mind: she can grow beyond the confines of the twisted plantation perhaps.

She and John talk and she reveals that she’s never left their land even though she’s read of the wider world… there’s a spark between the two and one that unsettles both John and the watching Iscah.

The next morning Iscah plays a mean game with Millie carrying her to the swamp where he perches her on a tree stump surrounded by alligators: he won’t release her until she agrees to a kiss. His only hold on her is through fear and the physical dominance he exerts.

Insert snappy caption here
But there are challenges to come as after chasing Paul away from collecting water with a knife, John returns to lay down the law: “don’t get me started… “ repeats Iscah to which John invites him to “start anytime he likes…” Iscah is finally meeting his match and he doesn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile Millie is lured by the promise of John’s boat and rows out for a trip which both thrills and then unnerves her… something had tied her to this land and she won’t easily be cut free.

Free all at sea
Things get darker on their return as her fears over Iscah are realised when he rushes at John with his knife… Millie throws her hands up expecting the worst only for John to easily disarm the younger, bigger but untrained man: he kicks his bottom (as I believe the American parlance has it?) as he throws the knife in the water.

But things are coming to a head and it’s not just Iscah who is losing his; John is getting too close to Millie and needs to make his escape. He cannot be unfaithful to the memory of his wife and he fears for the unlimited pain that the commitment of love can bring…

He points the yacht out to sea and looks to be on his way but as he steers in the dark he has visions of Millie; their potential happiness calling him back…

Meanwhile life is getting a whole lot more uncomfortable for Millie as Iscah proposes in his terrifying way and she only narrowly escapes his assault by blockading herself in her room… All is set for a mighty conflagration and, without giving anything away, Vidor sets up one of the most exhausting and convincing fights to the death you’ll see in silent film… it’s desperate stuff as every man, woman and dog are taken to the limits.

"Don't get me started..." "You can start anytime..."
Wild Oranges is in many ways a simple film but it benefits from this focus: five actors, a dog and two crocodiles… the confines of the boat, the decaying house and the physical constraints of the over-bearing local air, suffused with a musky fragrance that must affect the senses every bit as much as the heat.

John W. Boyle’s cinematography helps to capture this feel whilst Vidor and his editors keep the action at Southern Gothic pace – I was reminded of Mary Pickford’s superb Sparrows from 1926 which is a better film but who knows, Miss P may have seen this one?

I watched the Warner Archives DVD which comes with a splendid new score from Vivek Maddala which moves well with the storyline without overwhelming it as orchestral updates can sometimes do. Maddala’s pacing is bang on and really does catch the southern climes, the eerie warmth of the breeze and the fragrance of those bitter-sweet wild oranges.

The disc is available direct from the WB Shop or from Amazon.  

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